The Steelers certainly kept Najee Harris busy last season, calling his number an exhausting 381 times (307 carries, 74 catches). That’s a lot of mileage, especially for a player who isn’t exactly a spring chicken (he debuted as a 23-year-old rookie).
The NFL’s ruthless “use ‘em or lose ‘em” approach to running backs is why they tend to have shorter careers relative to other positions. Burning the candle at both ends obviously took its toll on former Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, who was out of the league by 26. But, if anything, Harris seems to prefer a heavy workload, insisting he’ll carry the rock as often as necessary for the Steelers, as long as it helps them win.
“I’ll get 500 carries,” Harris told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen in an interview earlier this week. “I train to carry loads. It’s not something I haven’t done before.”
That’s an ambitious number—the NFL’s single-season record for carries is 416, accomplished by former Chiefs running back Larry Johnson in 2006. But Harris, who set a rookie franchise record with 1,200 rushing yards a season ago, is ready to help the Steelers any way he can, and if that means putting his body on the line like Johnson did in 2006, so be it.
“I did it in college, high school, NFL,” said Harris. “[We had] a long streak where someone was saying if I have 25 carries, then we're undefeated. So okay, this is our identity right here. Let's keep this going. Listen, if I get 500 carries, as long as we're winning, it doesn't really matter.”
The Steelers ran Harris into the ground last season because he could handle it but also out of necessity, with aging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger unable to throw deep (career-low 5.2 yards per attempt). Middling contributions from backups Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage further undescored the importance of Harris, a two-time National Champion at Alabama and the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards (3,843) and yards from scrimmage (4,624).
Five-hundred carries might be unrealistic, but with significant uncertainty at quarterback—Mason Rudolph, Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett will compete for the starting job this summer—look for the Steelers to establish the run early and often in the first year of Pittsburgh’s post-Roethlisberger Era.