The hot new trend in the NFL appears to be moving highly touted college running backs to wide receiver — at least part of the time.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris, the team's first-round pick in April, told media that the plan is to have him be used “everywhere.” That includes out wide as a receiver.
“[One thing] that’s similar is probably how they’re going to, I guess, line me up out wide and stuff like that how I did in college — utilize the running back in the passing game out wide, in the slot, all the way out to the ‘X’ position,” Harris told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
This news comes on the heels of Jacksonville Jaguars first-round running back Travis Etienne being told he'll be deployed as a hybrid pass-catcher as well.
Big picture, this is not a stunning development in either case. Harris and Etienne were two of the better pass-catching backs in the 2021 NFL draft. But there does appear to be the possible expansion of receiving duties for both beyond what they did in college.
How Najee Harris could fare as as a pass-catcher
Harris, as he noted, was used out wide and in the slot occasionally, especially the past two seasons at Alabama. But new Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada — who has spent much of his career calling plays in college football — appears to be adding wrinkles with his backs in the passing game this season. He was the Steelers' QB coach last season before being promoted to coordinator this winter.
“What they're doing in their offense really resembles a lot of what we did [in college] in terms of putting the players in the best position to make a play and not doing too much thinking — just fast playing,” Harris said of his time in Tuscaloosa. “It seems like they're trying to make everything as easy as possible so players can just play fast and use the best of their abilities.”
After catching a combined 10 passes for 52 yards his first two college seasons, Harris caught 27 passes for 304 yards (11.3-yard average) and seven TDs in 2019, plus 43 passes for 425 yards (9.9-yard average) and four scores in 2020.
In 2019 and 2020, all but five of Harris' receptions were caught inside of 10 yards from the line of scrimmage — mostly shorter stuff. But on passes that traveled 10 or more air yards, per PFF, Harris averaged 19.4 yards on those five catches, resulting in four TDs.
So perhaps he's even more valuable in the receiving game than some might realize. It appears that the Steelers intend to find how just how valuable.
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