May 11—Pittsburgh Steelers first-round draft choice Najee Harris will be following in the footsteps of many Pro Bowl running backs in franchise history.
Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and John Henry Johnson.
Just to name a few.
Willie Parker, Barry Foster and Dick Hoak to name a few more.
But when it comes to the list of successful first-round Steelers running backs, it is much shorter. When you look further at the lack of impact from those players as rookies, the bar isn’t very high for Harris to leap.
And we all know that he can leap.
Dating back to when Chuck Noll was hired in 1969, the Steelers have only spent five first-round draft choices on running backs before this year. As Harris prepares for his first year in black and gold, for the sake of comparison, here are the numbers those other players posted in their first seasons.
Franco Harris (1972): The first of Harris’ eight 1,000-yard seasons came during his 1972 Rookie of the Year (UPI/Sporting News) campaign. He totaled 1,055 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns in a 14-game season.
Plus, he scored a fairly memorable touchdown to secure the franchise’s first playoff win.
So barring a Rookie of the Year start, a key touchdown in a playoff victory and surpassing what has frequently been deemed the single greatest play in NFL history, Najee Harris may have to settle for no better than second best on this list.
Considering what you are about to read, though, that’s not going to be too hard.
Greg Hawthorne (1979): Hawthorne won a Super Bowl ring as a rookie on the 1979 team. But in his first year out of Baylor, Hawthorne didn’t put up big statistics. He rushed for only 123 yards on 28 carries and scored just one touchdown.
Those stats jumped to 226 yards and four touchdowns while starting six games in 1980. But Hawthorne would never top 100 yards in a season again, leaving the team for New England in 1984. He played with the Patriots on the 1985 AFC Championship team before concluding his career in Indianapolis in 1987.
Hawthorne finished with 1,639 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns in his career.
Walter Abercrombie (1982): The Steelers went back to the well for another Baylor back in 1982. But he barely played as a rookie, getting on the field for six games, earning 100 yards on the ground and catching one pass for 14 yards.
Abercrombie became the franchise’s full-time starter in 1985, rushing for 851 yards that year and 877 the next season.
He was gone after 1987 and wrapped up his career with five games for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Tim Worley (1989): Worley’s first season out of Georgia wasn’t fantastic, but it was by far his best in the NFL.
Starting 14 games, he accumulated 770 yards rushing to lead the team. And the Steelers got back to the playoffs for the first time since 1984. But Worley was never close to as good again, failing to crack 500 yards in a season the rest of his career. Injury, fumbling and off-field problems got in the way of his potential.
Worley was dealt to the Chicago Bears in 1993 and was out of the league by the end of 1994.
Rashard Mendenhall (2008): The 23rd overall pick from Illinois barely played in his rookie season. Mendenhall accrued just four games (starting one) and picked up 58 yards rushing.
In Week 4, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis fractured Mendenhall’s shoulder, and his rookie season ended on injured reserve.
Mendenhall returned with 1,108 yards in his second season and 1,273 in 2010. He combined for 20 rushing touchdowns over those two seasons as well.
In the 2010 AFC playoffs, Mendenhall scored three touchdowns. He had 127 yards and a score on the ground in the AFC Championship Game over the New York Jets. He also picked up a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV against Green Bay.
Although, he may be better remembered for something else that happened in that Super Bowl. Unfortunately.
For those wondering, Bettis was the 1993 Offensive Rookie of the Year, rolling up 1,429 yards after being picked 10th overall. But that was with the Los Angeles Rams.
That said, his first season in Pittsburgh was really good, too. The Bus had 1,431 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1996.
As for Bell, he was a second-round pick and had 860 yards rushing and 399 receiving yards as a rookie. Not bad.
By his second season, Bell spiked up to 1,361 on the ground and 854 through the air.
So, even though those numbers weren’t earned by Steelers-drafted first-round rookie running backs, maybe those are the ones that Harris should eye up instead.
This Harris doesn’t have to be like the first Harris as a rookie. But if he’s like those other guys that came along after Franco in Year 1, you’ll hear a whole lot of “I told you so” from the anti-running back committee of draft analysts.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.