Najee Harris 2021 Fantasy Outlook: Fantasy RB1 as Steelers, Mike Tomlin's Next Workhorse - Roto Street Journal
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Najee Harris 2021 Fantasy Outlook: Fantasy RB1 as Steelers, Mike Tomlin’s Next Workhorse

Does the thought of a true three-down back being fed 25+ times a game, within a Top-12 offense, arouse you? Make you froth a little at the mouth?

If so, Pick 24 of the 2021 NFL Draft should have your pants off and your neighbors concerned with the ceaseless moans from your shitty apartment.

This math is very simple: Najee Harris defines bellcow. Steelers HC Mike Tomlin rides these rare creatures harder than any current NFL coach. Minus the crap offensive line, Harris’ 2021 and dynasty outlook could not be more pristine.

Talent: Najee Harris True Three-Down Ability in a Mammoth Body

Anyone trying to poke holes in Harris’ game or production is just looking for attention. He’s among the most complete prospects in recent years, and is built to be a bellcow.

Over the past two years, Harris dominated as Alabama’s workhorse, against the NCAA’s highest competition. He was first featured as a junior, feasting for 236 touches, 1528 scrimmage yards, and a lofty 20 TDs; as an encore, he spiked those numbers to 294, 1891 & 30 (an SEC record) respectively. Insane.

Harris stands a #thicc 6’2″ and 232 lbs that moves with equal doses of power and wiggle. Unsurprisingly, per FantasyPoints’ Scott Barrett, Harris led Power-5 RBs in total first downs (107), missed tackles forced (93), and was top-3 in rushing yards after contact (821). A legitimate engine for the NCAA’s most potent offense. Consequently, Harris ranks as the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher — yes, ahead of Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, Shaun Alexander.

Yet, it’s Harris’ receiving ability that separates him from the pack. He led Power-5 RBs in routes run (296) while ranking top-three in targets (53), receptions (43), receiving yards (425), and receiving YAC (222). He dropped just three of his 100 targets, while ranking ahead of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey in missed tackles forced per reception:

Harris’ 43 receptions last year trailed only Saquon Barkley and Steven Jackson for backs over 225 lbs since 2000.

A thoroughbred runner, top-end receiver, and goalline monster? Harris checks all the boxes.

This is perfect because:

Usage: Mike Tomlin Breeds Bellcows

Prior to James Conner evaporating to dust these past two seasons, Mike Tomlin was a lock to feed a workhorse.

From 2014-2018, Tomlin’s lead RB averaged 24.7 opportunities (attempts + targets) per game.

Yes, a horse like Le’Veon Bell helps, but Tomlin also force-fed an ancient DeAngelo Williams and Conner in that span too. Check out Williams’ splits as a starter:

364 touch (59 rec), 1785 total yard, 16 TD pace. Absurd.

Though not as prolific, even Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall routinely averaged 20+ touches per game under Tomlin prior to Bell’s arrival.

Tomlin openly admits his affection for riding a single horse. Last year, he stated, “I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality.”

This is quite contrarian to an NFL that’s trending more towards committee backfields and shared workloads. Yet, Tomlin justified it as a “rhythm” and “leadership” type of treatment:

“I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him, and it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way.

“Usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front, and that guy is the featured runner.”

The fantasy results have been monstrous:

On average, this amounted to 22.45 FPPG and an RB2.5 finish. None finished worse than 21.9 opps per game, 18.5 FPPG, or the RB6 in fantasy.

So… an RB6 floor? Yeah, I’ll take that. Especially when Harris is as good, if not better than everyone on that list.

Concerns: Offensive Line… and that’s it

Harris checks the talent, usage, and scheme boxes, fully and completely.

Of course, Surrounding Talent also needs to be factored in. In terms of offensive firepower, the Steelers offer plenty. In 2020, they ranked 12th in the NFL with 26.6 points per game, without any run game presence. Ben Roethlisberger still slings, they have oodles of talent out wide, and should move the ball with regularity.

Harris won’t hurt for drive-capping goalline plunges, where he is elite.

The main concern, however, is the offensive line. And it’s a real one.

Granted, the Steelers unit finished as PFF’s 17th ranked line last year — not great, but not horrible. However, they were buoyed by strong pass protection, as their run-blocking ranked 31st by PFF:

As PFF points out: “The only starting offensive lineman with a run-blocking grade north of 60.0 is Alejandro Villanueva at 60.9, and that shows in their rushing success on the year. No team averaged fewer yards per run play (3.6) than the Steelers did this year.”

Indeed, that’s a concern. The fact they took a TE over OL help in Round 2 didn’t help, either. Losing former OL coach Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the game, in 2018 has devastated this unit.

Thus, Harris will find tight creases in Pittsburgh. Good thing he’s among the best prospects at hitting holes decisively and making positive gains on seemingly empty plays.

Ultimately, volume can conquer all at RB:

Snaps are the second-highest corollary to  PPR Fantasy Points for RBs, and Harris should see 75-80% with health. Also, the Steelers were third-last in carries per game (22.9), which can take a big toll on run blocking; it requires repetition, and when the linemen are constantly going backward all game, the impact should not be overlooked.

Indeed, the line is a concern. Still, Harris should see more than enough carries, receptions, and scoring chances to offset this by a mile.

Summary: Najee Harris = Rookie 1.01 and a Top-12 Redraft RB Target

Overall, Harris landed in the optimal spot for his short and long term fantasy value. He’s a true three-down monster in an offense centered around them. A Saquon Barkley style of rookie season is fully in play here.

The immense talent and projected volume, within a Top-12 scoring offense, have me overlooking the offensive line concerns, real as they may be. Harris slides in as my RB12 and 16th overall player in my 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings and Big Board.

Wolf’s Projection: 320 touches (50 rec), 1500 YFS, and 11 total TDs.

Check out The Wolf’s latest 2021 Fantasy Football Big Board & Rankings to see where all these rookies and the veterans they impact land throughout the 2021 NFL Draft.

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Author

  • Founder of Roto Street Journal. Lover of workhorse backs, target hog wideouts, and Game of Thrones. Aspiring to be the "Brady" and "Leo" of the fantasy universe.

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