Will Steelers’ Najee Harris Make Immediate Fantasy Football Impact in 2021?
Alika Jenner/Getty Images. Pictured: Najee Harris of Alabama.
- The Steelers took running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, so will he get a shot to contribute right away?
- Matthew Freedman breaks down Harris's prospects in redraft and dynasty leagues.
Najee Harris Fantasy Profile
Najee Harris Fantasy Fit with Steelers
Dreams of in-his-prime Le’Veon Bell are currently coursing through my veins. That’s right: Dreams — in my veins.
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) April 30, 2021
Almost every mock drafter in the universe slotted Harris to the Steelers at No. 24 — because the fit just makes so much sense. Yes, the Steelers should have drafted an offensive lineman instead, but they clearly wanted a running back and Harris just feels like a Steelers running back.
The Steelers ostensibly have lots of backfield depth … which means that they have almost no backfield depth. They have lots of bodies: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage.
But not one of these guys has the ability to hang with Harris or slow his role. He should be an immediate Week 1 starter with RB1-caliber usage.
In redraft and best ball, I anticipate that he will be a coveted and reached-for asset whose average draft position climbs throughout the summer, and in dynasty leagues he is a locked-in top-three selection in rookie drafts who will likely be the No. 1 pick for many investors.
Dynasty Fantasy Analysis
Note: The following was written before the 2021 NFL Draft.
Ever since arriving at Alabama and recruiting “his guys,” head coach Nick Saban has had an eye for backs destined to be top-100 picks in the NFL Draft.
- Mark Ingram: 1.28 (2011)
- Trent Richardson: 1.03 (2012)
- Eddie Lacy: 2.61 (2013)
- T.J. Yeldon: 2.36 (2015)
- Derrick Henry: 2.45 (2016)
- Kenyan Drake: 3.73 (2016)
- Josh Jacobs: 1.24 (2019)
- Damien Harris: 3.87 (2019)
Make fun of Richardson and even Lacy if you want, but all of these former Alabama backs have had at least some degree of fantasy relevance in the NFL.
It would be hard to find a better prospect comp group for Harris, who seems destined to be a top-three pick in rookie dynasty drafts. Right now, I have him as the No. 2 back behind only Etienne in my way-too-early rookie rankings, but I’m not sold that Harris shouldn’t be the first back or maybe even the first player selected.
Harris entered college as a five-star recruit, and he certainly lived up to the hype at Alabama.
After backing up Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough as a freshman, Najee Harris as a sophomore split backfield work with upperclassmen Damien Harris and Jacobs and looked pretty good doing it.
He did almost nothing as a receiver in 2018, but as a runner he might have been the best of the Tuscaloosa trio, easily surpassing the other backs in yards per carry (YPC).
- Damien Harris (15 games): 150-876-9 rushing (5.8 YPC) | 22-204-0 receiving
- Josh Jacobs (15 games): 120-640-11 rushing (5.3 YPC) | 20-247-3 receiving
- Najee Harris (15 games): 117-783-4 rushing (6.7 YPC) | 4-7-0 receiving
As a junior and senior, he thrived in a post-Damien Harris/Jacobs backfield, breaking out as a true lead back.
- 2019 (13 games): 209-1,224-13 rushing | 27-304-7 receiving
- 2020 (12 games): 251-1,466-26 rushing | 43-425-4 receiving
Harris’ 22-79-2 rushing and 7-79-1 receiving performance in the College Football Championship was especially dominant, and in 2020 he was a unanimous All-American selection and the Doak Walker Award winner as the top back in college football.
While his production is nice, what Harris really has going for him is his size, receiving ability and likely draft position. With his grown-man measurements, Harris is a tough tackle for any defender, and his pass-catching skills are rare for a big-bodied back.
Harris might slip into Round 2, but right now he’s tentatively projected to be drafted on Day 1, and that’s significant, as it places him in the elite cohort of first-round backs to enter the NFL over the past decade at more than 220 pounds.
- Saquon Barkley (2018): 1.02 | 233 pounds
- Leonard Fournette (2017): 1.04 | 240 pounds
- Ezekiel Elliott (2016): 1.04 | 225 pounds
- Todd Gurley (2015): 1.10 | 222 pounds
- Trent Richardson (2012): 1.03 | 228 pounds
But Harris is not a prospect without potential drawbacks, the biggest of which is his age: He’s already 23 years old.
I wish Harris had entered the draft last year when he was first eligible because he truly had nothing left to prove in college, and in dynasty value there’s a big difference between a rookie back who is 22 and one who is 23 — but that’s a small complaint.
Harris is unlikely to have an especially long career, but he could still have multiple seasons of top-end production.
The other concerns with Harris are his athleticism and running style. It’s not as if Harris is unathletic, because he regularly hurdles defenders as if they’re trash cans …
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 1, 2021
… but he is slow. Powerful, but slow. Even with all the attempts he had in four years at Alabama and the elite offensive line he had blocking for him, Harris had just 25 carries of 20-plus yards in his college career (per Pro Football Focus). Harris rarely loses yards, but he also almost never breaks long runs.
Maybe Harris’ lack of big plays is due in part to his playing style: Because he’s so tall, he runs with a high pad level — at least that’s what some film grinders say.
I don’t know, maybe he actually does run high. But I’m of the anecdotal opinion that his playing style probably doesn’t matter.
You know who else ran high in college? Adrian Peterson. DeMarco Murray. David Johnson. Derrick Henry. And in the NFL they continued to run high — for thousands and thousands of yards.
Of course, Harris almost certainly lacks the elite athleticism that set Peterson, Murray, Johnson and Henry apart as prospects. For a back unable to separate from defenders, running high might actually be a problem, but I’m skeptical.
With his recruitment grade, college production, expected draft capital, size and receiving ability, Harris looks like an immediate NFL starter and fantasy contributor.
NFL Prospect Comp: Leonard Fournette with superior receiving skills but also less size, speed and draft capital
Matthew Freedman is 1,018-828-37 (55.1%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.