With the 24th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Najee Harris, the running back out of Alabama. Harris was nearly the consensus top RB prospect in this year’s draft class across the board, being regarded as the big, powerful feature back the Steelers haven’t had since Le’Veon Bell decided to hold out before the 2018 season.
While Harris figures to be a key piece to revive the porous running game Pittsburgh has dealt with the past several seasons, many have already begun to analyze his potential contributions from a fantasy football perspective as well heading into the 2021 season. Given Mike Tomlin’s affinity for feature backs, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Harris is being considered by many in the fantasy community as a possible breakout player in his first season in the black and gold.
Standing at nearly 6’2″, 230 lbs., Najee Harris has the size and frame to be a bell cow feature back from the start, should he prove that he is capable of handling Matt Canada’s offensive system. If anything, Harris is in the same camp as other veteran backs on the roster given the switch in play calling and transition to more zone system concepts in the run game, along with the revamped offensive line. While skeptics may point to the weaknesses along the offensive line last season as a detriment to Harris, which could be the case, the Steelers Depot crew has done a great job the last few weeks highlighting his ability to create in the run game and win on short yardage situations given his power and strength as a big back but also the exceptional vision and lateral movement skills he possesses at his size.
Recently in an interview, Najee Harris clapped back at the statement that he returned to Alabama for his senior season in order to work on his pass catching stating that he has always been catching the ball as a running back out of the backfield, in the screen game, and even split out in the slot or out wide as a receiver.
Two players I, as well as most in the national media, have compared Harris to from a size and skillset standpoint are Le’Veon Bell and Matt Forte. As Matthew Marczi pointed out in his recent article, both of these players were not as heavily utilized in the passing game in college as they were in the pros, and capitalized on new offensive systems to take advantage of their receiving prowess.
Harris should be considered for this leap as well, as he won’t be having to split time in the backfield with the likes of Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, and should see more opportunities in the passing game by no longer having to play with four first-round talents at WR for the Crimson Tide. Alabama also was relatively unchallenged in many games, being able to do as they pleased to opposing defenses.
The talent level is more evenly spread out in the NFL, meaning Harris will likely see more check downs out of the backfield and shallow targets he didn’t get in college, especially when considering Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the mobile passer he once was with his age and recent injury history. In 2019, Harris caught 27 passes for 304 yards and scored seven touchdowns. This past season, his receptions and yards increased to 43 catches for 425 yards, but he scored only four times through the air. However, both of these receiving seasons are more than acceptable in 13 games played in each season, averaging 11.3 and 9.9 YPC, respectively.
Now let’s dive into actual projections for Najee Harris in fantasy for 2021. For comparison’s sake, Le’Veon Bell played in 13 games his rookie season due to a foot injury sustained in training camp, but still recorded 244 carries for 860 yards (3.5YPC) with eight rushing touchdowns, and added another 45 receptions for 399 yards, posting 1,259 total yards from scrimmage. Bell also dealt with shaky offensive line play his rookie season as Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL and MCL Week 1 of the season, requiring the likes of Cody Wallace to step in and play center. Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert were starters, but inconsistent play from Mike Adams allowed Kelvin Beachum to win the starting LT job five games into the year.
Matt Forte enjoyed a more productive rookie campaign in 2008, starting all 16 games and talliying 316 carries for 1,238 rushing yards (3.9 YPC) and eight scores on the ground while adding in 63 receptions for 477 yards and four receiving touchdowns, posting 1,715 total yards from scrimmage. The starting offensive line for the Bears then was arguably more questionable than the current line Pittsburgh has, rolling out John St. Clair, Josh Beekman, Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and John Tait as their primary starters during the 2008 season. Needless to say, both Bell and Forte were able to overcome adversity up front to have productive seasons as rookies.
Najee Harris should look to be the lead back for Pittsburgh from the start barring any unforeseen injuries. From Bell’s rookie season in 2013 to the year he held out in 2018, Pittsburgh’s lead tailback averaged 255 carries (counting missed time by Bell, DeAngelo Williams, and James Conner due to injuries) for the season along with 63 receptions on the year, coming out to 318 total touches. Now Harris averaged 6.0 yards per carry and 9.8 yards per reception with the Crimson Tide, but we can look to drop those averages down to a more conservative 4.2 yards per carry and an even 9.0 yards per reception given his status as a rookie and the change up front along the offensive line.
Following these numbers from a conservative standpoint over the course of a 17-game season, Harris would accumulate 1,071 rushing yards and 567 receiving yards to total 1,638 yards from scrimmage. These totals account for Harris getting roughly 15 carries and 3.7 receptions per game.
Personally, I would expect Harris to be closer to 18-20 carries a game if game script permits it, and possibly see just a few less receptions total over the course of his rookie season. Say Harris averages 17 carries a game at the same YPC as above, and instead catches a safer estimate of 55 passes on the season. His totals would come out to 1,213 rushing yards and 495 receiving yards, 1,708 total yards from scrimmage. Having a nose for the end zone and being a viable receiving threat, it’s not out of the question for Harris to score 10 touchdowns on the ground and two through the air, thus equating to 12 total scores.
So, when transferring that over to fantasy points, that would come out to 242.8 non-PPR or 297.8 full-PPR fantasy points based on the information provided by Fantasy Data. For context, that would have placed Najee Harris as RB #4 in non-PPR and RB #8 in full-PPR in 2020 in ESPN fantasy football leagues, understanding that Harris will have played an extra game.
This would mean Harris should probably be worth a mid-to-late first round selection in non-PPR fantasy drafts and likely a late first/early second round selection in PPR formats. Now injuries and time missed have to be considered here, but that can be said for all other running backs. I’m not saying that these will be the numbers Harris will post over the course of the 2021 season. But based on historical trends and being fairly conservative on estimates in terms of carries, receptions, yards per reception, and yards per carry, it’s not unrealistic for Harris to hit these benchmarks.
Time will tell based on how he gets phased into the offensive system and how the offensive line gels together over the course of the season, but Najee Harris looks to be the real deal in terms of a feature back in the NFL that can help lead fantasy football teams to championships in 2021.