Updated: May 28
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Najee Harris is coming into his rookie year with lofty expectations from the media and fan base, which is to be expected being that he's a first-round pick. There's always a lot of attention surrounding a first-round pick, but I can't remember a Steelers draft pick during the Kevin Colbert era that has this much fanfare and high expectations like Harris.
Maybe, Ben Roethlisberger, but back in 2004, it wasn't expected that he would start right away, as Tommy Maddox was supposed to be the starter. That, of course, all changed when Maddox got injured in the third quarter against the Ravens in Week 2 and Roethlisberger became the starter and the rest was history.
From about 2000 to 2015, rookies rarely started for the Steelers. Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey, and of course, Roethlisberger, were exceptions. It was especially hard for defensive players to start in their first years during the Dick LeBeau era, as it was a complex defense to learn. That has changed since Keith Butler became the defensive coordinator in 2015, as Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds and Devin Bush were all starters or contributors in their rookie seasons. Ryan Shazier also started in LeBeau's final season with the Steelers in 2014, so there's been a changing of the guard over the last seven years.
LeBeau wasn't the Steelers defensive coordinator in 2003, but even Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu wasn't a starter from the beginning. It wouldn't be until his second year in 2004 where he would break out.
Below are the Steelers' first-round picks since 2000 and I can't remember any of those players having as much hype as Harris, or at least the expectation to play at a Pro Bowl level in Year 1, like Bucky Brooks of NFL.com mentioned.
Brooks believes the success of the Steelers 2021 season all falls on Harris' shoulders and how he performs.
"I know Steelers fans might expect Ben Roethlisberger to be the one cited to guide the Steel City to its seventh title, but the team's playoff hopes hinge on whether a rookie running back can play at a Pro Bowl level reminiscent of what Pittsburgh got from the position in Le'Veon Bell 's glory days," Brooks wrote. "The Alabama product has similar skills as an RB1/WR2 talent, and his ability to create explosive plays as a runner and receiver will add a much-needed dimension to an offense that has lost its luster in recent years."
Brooks feels the Steelers should not expect Roethlisberger to throw the ball 608 times like he did last year, which was the third-most in the league, especially being that Roethlisberger is another year older at age 39. Getting a more balanced attack with Harris now in the backfield should be the Steelers' No. 1 priority heading into the 2021 season.
"Insert Harris into the lineup and the Steelers, who ranked dead last in rushing last season, have a three-down back with big-play potential when the ball's in his hands. At Alabama, he displayed outstanding balance, body control and burst as a runner and spectacular skills as a route runner in the passing game," Brooks wrote. "With Big Ben better suited to play small ball at this stage of his career, the addition of a versatile, big-bodied back with soft hands gives the Steelers' offense another dimension."
Perhaps, I'm living too much in the present, but the kind of buildup and expectations that Harris is receiving in his rookie season is unusual for a first-year Steeler.