While this running back class lacks depth, there is a clear-cut RB1 at the top. Najee Harris is coming off of a truly historic senior season after posting a ridiculous 251/1466/26 rushing line and adding 43/425/4 as a receiver. In fact, Harris became one of just five collegiate backs to post at least 1,200 rushing yards, 20 rushing TDs, 40 receptions, and 400 receiving yards in a single-season since 2000.
Harris’ counting stats are impressive enough, but how did he fare in Yards Created?
|YC Statistic||The Numbers|
|Yards Created per attempt (YC/A)||4.47 (33rd percentile)|
|YC/A - inside carries||4.08 (45th percentile)|
|YC/A - off-tackle carries||5.22 (25th percentile)|
|Alabama Yards Blocked per attempt||1.80 (94th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per attempt||0.33 (45th percentile)|
|Loaded Box (% of attempts)||30%|
|Receiving yards gained per route run||1.6 (70th percentile)|
|Missed tackles forced per reception||0.58 (99th percentile)|
|Pass protection execution rate||33%|
(For a primer on how I chart Yards Created, head here. Percentile scores are based on the Yards Created database that spans the 2015-2020 college seasons. 50th percentile is average. Loaded Box is the percentage of attempts where the runner faced at least one unaccounted for defender in the box, i.e. the offense uses 7 blockers and the defense stacks the box with 8 men. Pass protection execution rate is the percentage of snaps where the RB did not allow pressure.)
Off of the top, Harris’ Yards Created figures don’t look particularly special with 45th and 25th percentile scores on his inside and off-tackle carries, respectively. However, some context is needed here. Whereas most college offenses have evolved to the spread with 3 or 4 receivers on the field most of the time, OC Steve Sarkisian’s run game is very different. Alabama used 2 or more tight ends on 63% of their run plays, which is a significantly higher rate than Travis Etienne saw at Clemson for example (20%).
Running backs’ production and efficiency is driven by things out of their control, to a certain degree. The defense usually matches personnel with the offense, not the other way around. So when the offense has extra blockers on the field, the running back will naturally face more defenders in the box. It should come as no surprise that Harris’ figures are better when he faced an “even” box (4.7 YC/A) as opposed to a “loaded” box with extra defenders (4.1 YC/A) when Alabama ran their multiple tight end looks. Again, a loaded box is where the runner faced at least one unaccounted for defender in the box.
For added reference, Harris’ 5.22 YC/A on his off-tackle carries isn’t as bad as you may think. Alvin Kamara (5.30), Josh Jacobs (5.21), Joe Mixon (5.16), and Kareem Hunt (5.09) all scored similarly to Harris when they ran outside. The true red flags are in the lower range with John Kelly (4.43 YC/A on off-tackle carries), Kerryon Johnson (4.25), Devontae Booker (3.14), and Kalen Ballage (2.08).
One word that constantly popped into my mind when I was charting Harris was consistency. He sustains runs and creates hidden yardage on his own with excellent footwork, vision, and balance. Harris created five or more yards on 30% of his carries, which is in a very similar realm as bell-cow backs Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook (32%) coming out of college.
While there are no questions about whether or not Harris can be a high-volume workhorse, I was blown away with how polished of a receiver he already is. Alabama put a surprising amount on Harris’ plate as a route runner and he answered with crisp, explosive routes where he made throwing lanes easy for Mac Jones. I chart 10 different types of routes, and Harris ran eight of them, which is incredibly impressive considering 230-pound backs with nuanced receiving skills are rare. Harris wasn’t just taking four steps and turning around — he was running wheel, option, and angle routes that require precision and ball-tracking skills when he was targeted.
When Harris got the ball in his hands as a receiver, he was a wrecking ball. In fact, his 0.58 missed tackles forced per reception (MT/R) is the best figure I’ve ever charted. That’s right. Alvin Kamara now ranks second-best over the last six years at 0.53 MT/R while Christian McCaffrey is third-best at 0.45 MT/R. Zack Moss (0.44) and Kareem Hunt (0.42) round out the top-5. Not too bad of company, right? Harris’ ability to make would-be defenders miss not just with power, but nimbleness and elusiveness is genuinely unparalleled.
The Steelers clearly aren’t in the “RBs don’t matter” camp.
Even with an offensive line that has been in the bottom-8 of the NFL in most run blocking metrics for back-to-back years, they stuck with their plan and selected Najee Harris at 24 overall. Keep in mind, this was after five offensive linemen went off of the board and zero linemen were taken for the rest of the first round after the Vikings picked Christian Darrisaw at 23. At the very least, the Steelers had a grasp on what was a clear tier dropoff in offensive line talent when they were on the clock — there wasn’t another lineman picked until 37 overall when the Eagles took Landon Dickerson. Could the Steelers have traded back a bit, picked up some extra capital, and still gotten Harris? Possibly. But the point is that GM Kevin Colbert felt like the No. 1 RB on his board is more valuable than the sixth-best lineman available. And that matters.
In a rookie class that is completely lacking depth — receivers included — Harris to Pittsburgh is one of the lone slam-dunk landing spots. He checks a lot of the boxes that we look for in fantasy:
Great production in final two seasons
Early draft capital (first or second-round pick)
Extremely elusive runner
Solid YC figures
Zero competition on the depth chart
The one hold up is the Steelers’ lackluster line. Harris benefitted from an elite Alabama offensive line that opened up 1.80 Yards Blocked per carry, which is the eighth-best figure in my database over the last six years. The Steelers are clearly higher on growing their talent on their roster than everyone else is — and they added C Kendrick Green and T Dan Moore in Round 3-4 of the Draft — but no one should pretend that their line is going to turn back into the juggernaut they once were when Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.
Still, the relationship between the offensive line and the running back is a balancing act. It’s why a stat like yards before contact needs context. Sure, Harris’ line was top-notch — but he was also helping them out often with his excellent footwork, decision-making, and elusiveness. At 6’2”, 230 pounds, Harris displayed incredible ability to maneuver through traffic for a back of his size. In fact, Harris led this class in missed tackles forced on his carries in between the tackles, just ahead of Javonte Williams.
Regardless of whether or not the Steelers’ line even gets marginally better as a group, the sky's the limit here for our game.
With James Conner out in the desert now, Harris’ only real competition for early-down work is career 3.6 YPC JAG Benny Snell. And most importantly, Harris will be a checkdown binky for the aging Ben Roethlisberger. Targets are worth 2.7 times more PPR points than carries in PPR formats, so even if Harris’ efficiency is middling on the ground he can more than make up for it with passing down work. Harris is a smooth route runner and an absolute beast after the catch, as he recorded an unreal 0.583 missed tackles forced per reception in his final season. That is the best figure I’ve ever charted in my six years of doing Yards Created, besting Alvin Kamara (0.53) Christian McCaffrey (0.45) for the top spot.
For this year, we are all-in on Harris and installed him as the RB10 in our first run of projections. I’ve already done 10 best-ball drafts and am targeting him in early to mid-second round while that price lasts. There is a good chance we’re talking about Harris as a first round pick when drafts really start heating up in August.
In dynasty, it’s hard to find more than 6-7 running backs that are better long-term bets than Harris. Christian McCaffrey is still the gold standard, Dalvin Cook is just entering his prime, and Alvin Kamara is one of the most consistent RB1s in fantasy history. Then you have that tier of Saquon Barkley plus all of the backs from the 2020 class in some order. After that? There is a legitimate argument Harris is already a top-8 dynasty RB. Because elite backs are so scarce and have such a short shelf-life compared to receivers, you draft RBs early, sell them high, and then rinse and repeat. Harris is my 1.01 over Ja’Marr Chase in rookie drafts, especially considering you probably have no viable backs on your roster if your team was bad enough to earn the first pick.
His combination of footwork, anticipation, and vision is top-5 in the NFL caliber. Doesn’t waste steps. The only other RB that comes to mind that had similar high-level vision coming out of college was Nick Chubb.
An absolute unit. So difficult to bring down. I am not sure I’ve seen another 6’2”, 230-pound running back with his high level of elusiveness. Has moves like he’s 5’10”, 195 pounds. In fact, 47% of his total missed tackles forced on his touches came via elusiveness (cuts, jukes, spins, etc.)
His ability to subtly maneuver through traffic and avoid contact in tight spaces is unmatched. It often goes unnoticed, but this is a trait that makes Ezekiel Elliott so good.
Extremely fluid as a route runner for his size. He catches passes in stride without breaking momentum and immediately goes into YAC beast mode. Forced the most missed tackles per reception I’ve ever charted, besting Kamara and McCaffrey.
The only thing Harris is missing is deep speed, and he’ll never have that. Now, there is nuance here. A bigger back like Le’Veon Bell didn’t have homerun speed either and Harris compares favorably to him. Guys like Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara ran forty-yard dashes in the 4.55-4.65 range. Harris makes up for a lack of long speed with elite burst within 2-5 yards. At the end of the day, Harris gets to his top gear in a hurry and that 6th gear is more than fast enough.
Harris’ technique and awareness as a pass protector needs work, but that isn’t unlike most college running backs. If you’ve been reading Yards Created long enough, you know that I feel pass pro is entirely overvalued. It’s also teachable and one of the easiest skills for backs to improve upon, and Harris certainly has the ideal frame to block NFL bodies.
- Harris is older for a prospect (turned 23 in March). Does that shorten his window in dynasty leagues? Or does it not matter? Keep in mind, the age cliff is around 28, but the pocket where RBs rack up most of their production is Years 2-6. Harris won’t be 28 until his fifth pro season.