Most people could’ve predicted Najee Harris’ sophomore slump. One look at the Steelers’ payroll, offensive line depth, or quarterback situation should’ve been enough for anyone to foresee backfield struggles for the 2021 first-round pick out of Alabama. Still, several believed his feature role and pass-catching ability — essentially, his sheer volume of work — would make up for any deficiency. After all, he is immensely talented.
Eight weeks into the season and now, that last statement is seeming less and less true. Harris is currently averaging 3.3 yards per carry, 45.1 yards per game, three receptions per game, and 4.7 yards per reception. All of those figures are down from last year. He’s not reaching the end zone as often. He’s receiving far fewer targets, and even when he does get opportunities, he doesn’t pass the eye test. Steelers fans have shaken their heads and fists too many times watching Harris run East to West instead of North to South. He hasn’t shown patience running up the middle. He hasn’t shown smart play. He’s just been bad.
That said, all of these struggles are just that, struggles — meant to be overcome. Sophomore slumps are well-documented, and considering Harris spent the first half of this season dealing with a nagging ankle injury, there’s reason to be optimistic for a late-year push or third-year resurgence. More likely though, is that Harris will not recover from these struggles.
We’ve actually seen this career arc before.
Yes, that is a graph that accurately illustrates the effectiveness of Najee Harris compared to Trent Richardson, another Bama back, through each of their first 400 rushing attempts.
Both players were drafted in the first round of their respective drafts. Both players were given more than 250 rushing attempts in their first season. Both players averaged under four yards per carry despite the heavy workloads. Both players showed great promise, only to disappear quickly. Most frightening for Harris fans though is that we’re currently seeing the same flaws in his game that ultimately destroyed Richardson’s career.
Richardson was 228 pounds during his career, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Harris is four inches taller than Richardson was, but four pounds heavier. Regardless, the average weight for an NFL running back is about 215 pounds. Both Harris and Richardson are big men for their positions, making them perfect candidates for up-the-middle, North-South running. Dive straight into the teeth of the defense, work well in short-yardage situations, and don’t try to speed around edges or shake defenders out of their boots. Neither played like that though.
Plays like the one above certainly don’t help Harris’ case. On third down, the first down marker was just a few yards downfield, but instead of moving toward the first-down line, Harris decided to dance and try to get around the defender and turn the play into a potentially bigger gain. That shows poor vision, poor decision-making, poor field awareness, and poor agility — the defender didn’t fall for his move at all, and it slowed him down so that a second defender was able to come up and help make the stop — all the same flaws that plagued Richardson’s game.
I will say, Harris hits holes in the offensive line more consistently than Richardson, who loved to run into the backs of his linemen, did. Harris doesn’t do that quite as often. Harris also plays behind a worse offensive line. The 2013 Cleveland Browns’ O-line consisted of two 2013 Pro Bowlers (including All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas) and a future All-Pro in right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. That line ranked 18th in adjusted line yards and ninth in power success rate. Those aren’t elite metrics, but they are indicative of solid line play. Because of Richardson’s ineffectiveness, that line ranked near the bottom of the league in second-level yards and open field yards. Those stats do reflect somewhat poorly on the O-line but are more indicative of ineffective running after holes are created by the big men up front. Cleveland ranked 28th in second-level yards per attempt, and 31st in open-field yards.
This season, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank 23rd in adjusted line yards and 11th in power success rate. Both numbers are below the 2013 Browns O-line (18th and ninth respectively), but they’re at least somewhat close. Pittsburgh ranks 28th in second-level yards and 28th in open field yards. Sound familiar?
It’s still early in Harris’ career. He has time to turn it around, but history tends to repeat itself. Another running back out of Alabama, on an NFC North team, struggling with his identity, is a story we’ve seen before and it didn’t end well. As it’s going right now, Harris is Richardson 2.0.