Cam Heyward thinks 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris has legs of steel

Najee Harris is a running back, not a robot.
Najee Harris is a running back, not a robot.
Image: Getty Images

When a team drafts a running back in the first round of the NFL Draft, everyone expects him to carry a heavy workload for his new team (especially when his legs look like tree trunks), but Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward might be expecting a little bit too much out of his new teammate, Najee Harris.

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This morning, while being interviewed for Good Morning Football, Heyward said of Harris: “I think, as a defender, we’re most excited to have him. Having a guy like that that can tote the rock 30 to 40 times a game really puts an ease for the defense.” EXCUSE ME?!?!?! 30 to 40 times?! I’d hate to break it to you, Cam, but Harris won’t get anywhere close to that.

In 2020, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing attempts with 378, over 60 more than the next closest player, Dalvin Cook (312). Henry took on a bigger workload than any running back had seen in the NFL since DeMarco Murray in 2014. Still, Henry averaged just 23.6 carries per game. In order for Harris to live up to Heyward’s expectations, Harris would have to rush the ball approximately 595 times in 2021. The all-time NFL record for carries in a single season is held by Larry Johnson, who “toted the rock” 416 times for the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2006. Johnson’s workload that season drastically affected Johnson’s effectiveness for the rest of his career. He never reached more than 200 carries in any of his remaining five seasons. I can’t think of a worse fate for a promising young talent like Harris than to be subjected to 30+ carries a game.

In all fairness, there have been rookies in the past who have seen intense work out of the backfield. In 1983, Eric Dickerson broke George Rogers’s all-time rookie rushing record. Dickerson rushed for 1,808 yards on 390 carries. However, the NFL has changed drastically since then. Passing attempts continue to skyrocket. Running back committees are appearing left and right. Injuries are increasing. All bad things for anyone used to seeing the traditional 3-down back.

Harris has virtually no competition for the starting running back position as of right now. His biggest competitors are Benny Snell and *checks notes* Kalen Ballage. Harris also brings better hands than anybody in the backfield on the Steelers’ roster — Harris caught 43 of 57 targets in 2020 for a catch rate of 75.4 percent. That catch rate would put Harris at just 12th in the NFL among halfbacks with at least 50 targets in 2020, but since Harris was often asked to run deeper routes at Alabama (something he’d not be asked to do as often in Pittsburgh), it’s only logical to assume he’ll get easier targets and therefore a better catch rate during his first season in the NFL. However, even with all of these factors pointing in favor of Harris’s extreme usage next season, it’d be a miracle if Harris reached 30 carries even once all season.

All in all, Heyward’s got the right idea for 2021. He later said in an interview with Good Morning Football that the Steelers’ defense had been worn down in the final stretch of last season: “I think our balance between our offense and defense wasn’t great. We weren’t getting off the field as much as we were earlier in the season, and then our offense couldn’t sustain drives.” Heyward’s got a point there. The Steelers ranked 10th in average time of possession for the entirety of 2020, but ranked 19th in that department over the team’s final three games. Harris’s presence in the backfield could definitely help in that department. However, don’t expect Harris to carry the ball more than 300 times. The Steelers like Najee. They wouldn’t have drafted him in the first round if they didn’t. They want to keep him around for several years to come. The best way to make sure that does NOT happen would be to rush him 30-40 times a game in his rookie season.