Sometimes, you need only spend a few hours around a football team for certain individuals to stand out. One afternoon is enough to cement a strong impression. A rookie looks like a veteran. It's about as close to can't miss as possible.
Najee Harris fits that description. He is going to be a thing in the NFL in 2021, and he is going to be a thing from Week 1. It won't always be perfect, and given the makeup of this offensive line the Alabama standout may often have to do more with less in ways he rarely if ever experienced at that college football factory. But his mind and body are up to the challenge, and I foresee Harris becoming the face of an offense very much in transition and a stalwart in the Pittsburgh community.
This kid is special in more ways than one. His star power, on and off the field, is real.
"So far he is doing everything we had hoped he could be able to do," said general manager Kevin Colbert, not one to throw around abundant platitudes about rookies, especially after only a few padded practices. "He's very conscientious , a hard worker, a quick study.
"We had heard all of that, but until you witness it you never know. But he has bene exceedingly diligent in his effort and willingness to get better. He's very talented and I see the want to. We're excited to see him play."
Repeatedly, Harris has been trapped behind the line of scrimmage, flooded by defenders. The Steelers defense is elite and it's offensive line has been a hodgepodge to this point on a team that could be looking at five new starters from a year ago, and one already dealing with plenty of bumps and bruises early in camp. Harris seems to relish the opportunity to shine even when the numbers are stacked against him and there is no discernable hole and he has to invent something out of nothing on the fly.
"Not every play is going to be blocked," he said, beaming the entire time with an infectious smile in what's become a bit of a mantra for him. Harris believes it is his duty to beat the first man he sees, no matter the situation, and find a way to salvage the play. It's his responsibility to "create" whenever the ball is in his hands ... And for all of the talk about a reborn Ben Roethlisberger, Harris is going to see an awful lot of the football.
"The line is what it is," Harris said. "My job is to do everything I can on every run to help my team."
He managed to slither away from the immense grasp of defensive lineman Cam Heyward on one memorable run from the weekend, turning a 5-yard loss into a substantial enough gain down the sidelines. Burly Steelers defenders, reticent to throw bouquets at fellow top picks like rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth (or even call him by his name "the little tight end who might be something special," as Heyward referred to him), are gushing over their new feature back after being the league's worst rushing team a year ago.
"That was one thing I really loved about him, even at the college level," Heyward said of the ability to turn nothing into something. "No matter what the offensive line gave him, he's able to fight for positive yards. Obviously, we don't want to let that happen, but to see that guy fall forward a lot for us is a positive sign for us."
The running backs in this division bear monitoring. Nick Chubb just got his extension to secure him to the Browns, Joe Mixon, one suspects, can't suffer a serious injury for a third straight year, and the hype about JK Dobbins seeing a ton of the ball and being featured in the passing game in Year 2 is very real. Harris will end up mentioned in the same breath as all of them.
Missing-in-action Jackson a big problem
The Ravens anticipate Lamar Jackson is back for practice this weekend after landing on the COVID-restricted list right before camp opened last week. Frankly, it can't happen quickly enough. Players and coaches and execs spent months preparing to make alterations to a lagging passing game, through schematics and points of emphasis as well as through transactions (overhauling the offensive line and receiver groups). They aimed to put theory into practice and begin to tweak and evaluate who fits where, but good luck sorting through what has been put on film thus far without the former MVP and a host of core guys on offense..
Having Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley attempt to run the first-team offense day after day looks less appealing as the sample size grows. Doing so without last year's starting receivers (Miles Boykin and Hollywood Brown) doing anything and with 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman doing next to nothing with a muscle ailment and with left tackle Ronnie Stanley still on a long road back from major midseason surgery and with key free agent signing Kevin Zeitler now dealing with a foot injury, too, is suboptimal. Oh, and Jackson also has a new center after enduring consistently bad snaps a year ago, but they can't even eat lunch together let alone practice together thus far.
Tuesday morning's session was hard to watch at times, with an aggressive defense dialing up pressure seemingly at will, the quarterbacks failing to make rudimentary passes even at walk-through pace without a pass rush in goal-to-go situations and with a bevvy of reserve running backs operating as receivers at times due to the dearth of available wideouts (Baltimore made a depth signing before Wednesday's session). There were no shortage of fans grumbling about what they were seeing and pining for Jackson to be back.
Lost time is lost time. Kudos for everyone in Ravens camp staying positive and upbeat and putting the best spin possible on this situation -- and Dobbins has been a standout in all three sessions I have watched -- but coming up with other superlatives is difficult in full-team sessions on that side of the ball.
Add in Jackson putting up bizarre anti-vax propaganda and potentially harmful conspiracy theories on his social media this week (quickly pulled down) -- all while engaged in negotiations for a mega-contract -- and color me skeptical that a whole lot has been accomplished by Jackson's unit thus far. That's largely on him.
- The Ravens aren't the only team hopeful of getting a monster deal done with a franchise player. Pittsburgh would love to get T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick extended as both have completed the three required seasons to do so ... But I wouldn't hold my breath. I didn't get the sense that anything was remotely close with either or that any momentum was building with them. The Steelers have long had a stipulation that no negotiations take part in season, so these deals happen in the next month or don't happen until 2022 at the earliest. I'd bet the over. Yes, owner Art Rooney said, "We're just going to do our best and I think both sides want to get something done." But there are some constraints and cap issues, the timing has been far from perfect, and $25M a year is a lot of money. He'll get his bag, eventually, but nothing is close yet, or getting close.
- The Bills have been at the forefront of the movement to find and develop better technology to help prevent and mitigate injuries, and it's never been more obvious than now. All of their offensive and defensive linemen were wearing large padded shells over their regular helmets in practice, something I can't help but wonder we'll see more of over time. Yes, they looked kind of odd, but no players were complaining about that, they didn't seem cumbersome, and if they prevent even one concussion or head or neck injury, it's more than worth it. The returns have been favorable and no one should be worried about making a fashion statement in camp, anyway. Anything safe that can provide better data about what toll these impacts take, or to help lessen that toll, is a step forward. Embracing that science is only smart.
- COVID and Father Time seemed to catch up to Calais Campbell a year ago in what was one of the least productive seasons of his career. At age 34 it's fair to wonder about bounce-back seasons, but for what it is worth Campbell has been a consistent standout in the three practices I've seen. He flashes all over, inside and outside, and sure, some of it is due to that makeshift OL, but Campbell's fire burns hot and he knows this may be his last shot to win something big. "He talks about how at this stage he's not going to be out there every day and every play," coach John Harbaugh told me. "He doesn't need that. The plays he takes, though, he wants to be cutting edge and play with his hair on fire. That's what I see him doing." ... The Bengals offense is having a very slow start to things by all accounts, with attention already on their long-woeful offensive line. Eager to see it for myself this weekend. Anyone expecting Joe Burrow to be Superman in his first practices back from those procedures is a fool. The mental aspect of that recovery is very real and even Tom Brady looked human for at least half of his first season back from his knee surgery. It's going to take time. ... Chubb's deal with the Browns didn't reset the running back market in any way shape or form. Very well done by GM Andrew Berry for a front office that continues to distinguish itself. ... We aren't even through two training camps with Joe Judge at the helm, but it seems to be always something with the Giants. Can't help but wonder if in the back of anyone's mind they wish they'd have just hired Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and let Judge go the college route. Lotta red flags in very little time.