With the 2021 NFL Draft behind us, fantasy football owners are now looking ahead to their upcoming drafts. While the rookie class provides plenty of promise, what will be the value of these prospects from a fantasy perspective? Here, we discuss the potential of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris:
As a four-year talent at Alabama, Najee Harris received more playing time as his collegiate career progressed. In 2017, he was part of a run-heavy offense that included Damien Harris, Jalen Hurts, and Bo Scarbrough. Even with Scarbrough out of the picture and Hurts benched for Tua Tagovailoa in 2018, Harris was still crammed into a backfield with a returning Josh Jacobs.
Harris received a bulk of the carries in the 2019 season, totaling 1,224 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns across 209 attempts. As a senior, he compiled a career-high 1,466 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns; 11 shy of the all-time record. Harris rushed for multiple touchdowns in four of Alabama’s first five games during the 2020 season. In the National Championship victory against Ohio State, he finished with 79 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
As the 2021 NFL Draft began, many wondered whether running backs were valuable enough to be selected in the early rounds. In the previous two drafts, only Josh Jacobs (24th) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd) had been taken in the first round.
While the Steelers had a need to protect Ben Roethlisberger ahead of his 18th season, there was a clear void at the running back position as well. James Conner had signed with the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, leaving the depth chart to be led by Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr, and Kallan Ballage. With the 24th overall selection, the Steelers selected Harris.
Pittsburgh was once viewed as a powerhouse in the AFC during the 2020 season, winning each of their first 11 contests. Still, the team’s success had very little to do with the run game. The Steelers ran the ball on 34.52 percent of plays last season; the second-lowest mark in the NFL.
The Steelers leading rusher was James Conner, who finished with 721 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 169 attempts across 13 regular season games. Due to an ongoing quad injury, his season was limited. Conner received toe surgery in the offseason.
Pittsburgh continued to struggle with Benny Snell Jr (3.3 yards per carry) and Anthony McFarland Jr (3.4) failing to establish themselves as a three-down back. The Steelers lost four of their last five regular season games and were knocked out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Browns during the wild card round.
Fantasy Draft Projection
Across most fantasy leagues, regardless of the format, Harris should be the first rookie off the board. Fantasy Pros has him ranked as RB17, ahead of notable veterans such as Josh Jacobs and Chris Carson. They also label Harris as the 34th-best fantasy talent of 2021, making him a third-round pick in 12-team leagues. Yahoo Sports has maintained a similar evaluation, acknowledging Harris as the RB16 ahead of the 2021 season.
The evaluation of Harris is fair, as I’d personally prefer his upside versus unproven sophomores in D’Andre Swift or J.K. Dobbins. Fantasy owners that are willing to gamble on Harris during the 2021 season, given the uncertainty of Pittsburgh’s offensive line, will need an established RB1 prior to the selection.
2021 Season Output
Roethlisberger, 39, is unlikely to drop back for a similar number of pass attempts during the 2021 season. His 608 attempts during the 2020 season was the second-highest mark of his career, and only the third time in which he surpassed 600 attempts.
Harris is likely to receive a vast majority of carries as a rookie, while someone like Travis Etienne will be forced to split carries with the likes of James Robinson and Carlos Hyde. Even in James Conner’s unstable season with Pittsburgh last year, he still averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Assuming Harris can maintain 5.0 yards per carry across at least 175 rush attempts, which would both be figures across the league average from 2020, he should finish with a successful rookie campaign.
2021 Stats: 183 attempts, 990 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns