Steelers’ Najee Harris is starting to look like Trent Richardson

Najee Harris or Trent Richardson?  You decide.

Najee Harris or Trent Richardson? You are the judge. Image: Getty Images

Most people could have predicted Najee Harris’ slump sophomore. One look at the Steelers’ payroll, offensive line depth, or quarterback situation should have been enough to predict backfield struggles for the 2021 first-round draft pick from Alabama. Still, some believed his starring role and pass-catching ability — essentially his sheer volume of work — would make up for any shortcomings. After all, he’s incredibly talented.

Eight weeks into the season, that last statement seems less and less true. Harris currently averages 3.3 yards per carry, 45.1 yards per game, three receptions per game, and 4.7 yards per reception. All of these numbers are lower than last year. He doesn’t reach the end zone that often. He gets far fewer targets, and even when given opportunities, he fails the eye test. Steelers fans have shook their heads and fists too many times when they saw Harris run east-west instead of north-south. He didn’t show patience to run up the middle. He didn’t show any clever play. He was just bad.

That is, all of these struggles are just that, struggles—designed to be overcome. Sophomore dips are well-documented, and considering Harris spent the first half of this season grappling with a nagging ankle injury, there’s reason to be optimistic for a late-year boost or a third-year resurgence . More likely, however, Harris will not recover from those struggles.

We’ve actually seen this career arc before.

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Yes, that’s a graph that accurately depicts the effectiveness of Najee Harris versus Trent Richardson, another Bama back, on each of her first 400 rushing attempts.

Both players were drafted in the first round of their respective drafts. Both players received more than 250 rush attempts in their first season. Both players averaged less than four yards per carry despite the heavy workloads. Both players showed promise, only to quickly fade away. What’s scariest for Harris fans, though, is that we’re currently seeing the same flaws in his game that ultimately destroyed Richardson’s career.

According to Pro Football Reference, Richardson weighed 228 pounds during his career. Harris is four inches taller than Richardson but four pounds heavier. Regardless, the average weight for an NFL running back is around 215 pounds. Both Harris and Richardson are big men for their positions, making them perfect candidates for a run down the middle and between North and South. Dive right into the teeth of defenses, work well in short-range situations, and try not to dash around the edges or shake defenders out of their boots. However, neither of them played that way.

Games like the above certainly don’t help Harris’ case. On the third down, the first down marker was only a few yards down the field, but instead of moving towards the first down line, Harris decided to dance and try to skirt the defender and turn the game into a potentially bigger win to transform. 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 a second defender could come up and help make the stop – all the same flaws Richardson’s have plagued game.

I’ll say Harris hits holes on the offensive line more consistently than Richardson, who loved running in the back of his linemen. Harris doesn’t do that very 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 at right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. This line ranked 18th in cleaned line yards and ninth in power success rate. Those aren’t elite metrics, but they do indicate solid line play. Because of Richardson’s ineffectiveness, this line ranked second-level in yards and on open fields near the bottom of the league. These stats reflect the O line somewhat poorly, but tend to indicate ineffective running after holes were 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 9th, respectively), but they’re at least a little 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 from Alabama with an NFC North team and struggling with his identity is a story we’ve seen before that didn’t end well. As it is now, Harris Richardson is 2.0.