Najee Harris has always stood out on film. It’s largely what made him the top recruit in the country and, four years later, the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Just a couple days into rookie minicamp, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is getting an up-close look at what has separated Harris from his peers.
“I think he is as highly conditioned as anybody out there, and that’s a great place to begin,” Tomlin told reporters Saturday. “I think he’s got a nice foundation from that perspective. He’s a sharp guy, he’s a football guy. You can tell he passionate about football. He can articulate the game very well, so there’s a lot to be excited about.”
Harris has begun to deliver on that promise before putting on the pads. Rookie camp is a time for teaching, with limited numbers creating a more intimate setting. Tomlin said the first-round pick has especially impressed in his 1-on-1 time with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner.
“It provides plenty of opportunity for him to verbalize his knowledge and things of that nature,” Tomlin said.
There’s been football highlights as well. Harris showed off his pass-catching ability Saturday with a one-handed grab, which led to a humorous exchange with a Steelers beat reporter who asked about the play afterward.
“You saw that?” Harris responded. “… You guys were here? … Where were you guys at?”
This is also a learning time for the No. 24 overall pick, who discovered that members of the media are allowed to view some practices and were stationed on a balcony overlooking the field.
“Man, I thought y’all was boosters,” Harris said. “What the hell? That’s crazy.”
The first-year back was less enthused when asked if he had returned to Alabama for his senior season to sharpen his receiving skills. Harris noted the Steelers have discussed deploying him regularly in the passing game and even splitting him out wide at times.
“I’ve always been catching the ball, man,” an incredulous Harris said when probed about his acrobatic reception. “I always do that. I always do that. Not to brag or nothing but it’s like, it wasn’t luck. I can tell you that. Since y’all was watching, I’ll do it again. Nah, I’m going to get in trouble. But it’s not something I work on. I just, I’ve been doing that since middle school. I got big hands, man.”
Of course, those hands will be put to use more so to carry the ball. The Steelers were among the league’s worst rushing outfits last year and were clearly in the market for an upgrade after allowing James Conner to walk this offseason. At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Harris is built to carry a hefty load. He also believes he’ll quickly be comfortable in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme, pointing to the overlap with Steve Sarkisian’s offense at Alabama
“The inside zone, the outside zone, the power plays, the one-back power, the duo plays,” Harris said. “Just a lot of what they do in their offense really resembles a lot of what we did (in college). Just putting the players in the best position to make a play. And really not doing too much thinking, just fast playing. The more you think, the slower you play.”
That’s why Harris prepares the way he does, and why he plays the way he does.
“We did a lot of studying at Alabama, a lot of film work, but I think here it’s reached another level, how much time I’ve spent learning the plays,” he said. “I’m going to be utilized everywhere, so they want me to know multiple positions. It’s a lot more film work than college, but I don’t have school no more, so I’m glad off that. I have no issue with spending that much time in the film room. It’s something I like. I’m ready for the challenge. It’s something that they picked me for.”
What Harris put on tape helped, too.