Fantasy Court: The Case for Najee Harris in 2023 (Fantasy Football)
This article is part of the annual Fantasy Court Series. Don’t forget to check out The Case Against Najee Harris by Blaise Winn for his opposing view.
Hello Your Honor. My name is Julia, and I am targeting Pittsburgh Steelers this season. These are words I never thought I would say, especially after last year. Even with the disaster that was the offense at the time, Mike Tomlin still managed to piece together a 9-8 winning record, his 16th season of such. It was a deceptive winning record, with several classic AFC North slogging battles and a season-ending total of a mere 29 TDs, the 28th lowest in the league. With several candidates ripe for positive regression this season (ahem, Diontae Johnson), in my opinion, the Steelers’ fantasy options have nowhere to go but up, and they are all being undervalued. Najee Harris is one of these fantasy options. He is currently being drafted at the 2.07, according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, the 10th RB off the board. He finished last season as the RB14, despite being the RB28 over the first eight weeks.
It’s hard to believe that Najee has only had two seasons in the NFL. He burst onto the scene in 2021 after being drafted in the first round from Alabama by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had an incredible rookie season finishing as RB4 with 381 total touches, leading all RBs that year. 2022 started a little more disappointing, but he managed to salvage the second half of the season, finishing as RB14. The last five weeks were especially solid, with him finishing as RB18 or better each week, scoring at least twelve fantasy points each week.
|YR||Games||Rush ATT||YDS||Y/A||TD||TGTS||REC||Catch %||YDS||TD|
Najee Harris' 🔝 plays from the 2022 season
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 23, 2023
Simply put, we are living in a pass-catching WR world. Once again, according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, on average, this season there are eight WRs and one TE being drafted before Najee. This is a palpable transition from the “you must draft an RB in the first round” mindset, and the fantasy community can see why. Pass catchers lately are just scoring more in this high-powered NFL offense that protects QBs more, giving them time to chuck it downfield. And RBs just get hurt more often – we know that.
Last season on average, Najee was drafted at the 1.08, with two WRs usually going ahead of him. If you look at his ADP this year (2.07) and where it fell last season, in 2022, there were only five WRs and one TE going ahead of that position. WRs have been pushed up in the ranks, pushing down other positions, mainly RBs. This is fantastic news for Najee this season. Even if he finished as he did last season at RB14, you would hardly call the RB10 off the board busting if he finished a mere four spots lower. At least I wouldn’t; four spots different would be entirely in the tolerable range of outcomes. Last season that would have meant an overall fantasy point total of 213 to 204 or a weekly average difference of 12.8 to 11.9.
But that is assuming nothing changes for Najee. And, Bob, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are very few true three-down backs left in the NFL. Mr. Harris is one of them. Najee played the fifth most offensive snaps among all RBs in 2022, on the heels of the 2021 season, where he played a league-high 83.5% of snaps. This isn’t going to change. Tomlin loves a true workhorse RB, and the Steelers’ offense leans into it hard. Najee played over double the amount of snaps than any other RB on the team did in 2022, 724 to Jaylen Warren’s 330.
How many RBs can you name that have a chance to get 300 touches in a season? Exactly. Not many RBs played all 17 games last season, and even with several random injuries, Najee was one of them. He plays hard, and he plays through. He played hard even with a subpar offensive line that did not do well to protect him. Of the six RBs who started all 17 games last season, Najee had the lowest average rushing yards before contact per rushing attempt at 2.1. But the Steelers took steps to make Najee’s life a little easier this season – the overall improvement of the Steelers’ offensive line via the draft should lead to more yards before contact and more yardage overall. They opened up by taking Georgia OT Broderick Jones in the first round and continued to add through the weekend with another LB and O-Lineman. They also added LG Isaac Seumalo in free agency, ultimately bumping up their PFF OL grade to 12th from 16th last season.
Sir, are you offering me a stout RB who is on the field constantly, with the potential to hit 300 touches, playing behind a much improved OL for a team that loves to run? Don’t mind if I do.
Perhaps rushing numbers alone aren’t enough to sway you. No worries. May I interest you in pass-catching? Perhaps from a QB that has nowhere to go but up? Then I present exhibit B, Kenny Pickett. Remember in 2021, when Najee tied for the most RB targets with 94? What a time to be alive. That year Najee was catching passes from Big Ben, who loved to target the RB. We all know those targets decreased last season with Kenny Pickett taking the field – the targets dropped drastically to 53. However, it wasn’t just Najee; targets, on the whole, dropped for the team from 653 to 548. Receptions and overall offensive yardage also dropped.
Pickett was far from perfect. He was 22nd in the league in completions with a dismal 63% completion rate. Not to mention the mere seven TDs he threw. I mean, even Zach Wilson threw six. We are ready for positive Pickett regression in 2023. Out of QBs who played at least nine games, Pickett was DEAD LAST in TD% with 1.8%, which is basement levels below the NFL average. Imagine if he improved a little bit, let’s say to 2022 Davis Mills 3.5% rate, which is doubling his TD rate. Last year that would have meant 14 TDs. What a different fantasy year it would have been for the Pittsburgh offensive weapons if that had transpired.
So up we go in 2023. Pickett has had more time with the offense and should be more prepared entering the season. He has shown that he likes to target Najee; in the games he started, Najee out-targeted Jaylen Warren 39 to 25. This should continue, and we could see Najee again back up in the 80-90 target range.
— Steelers Update (@steelersupdate6) August 3, 2023
Your Honor, the main difference for Najee in 2022 was two things – lower rushing attempts (and therefore yards) and lower targets (and therefore receptions). I believe both of these issues will be remedied with the improvement of Kenny Pickett and the positive regression of the Steelers’ offense. Najee is currently being drafted as the RB10, and I just did a mock draft where he did not go until the end of the fourth round! Guys. This man has a high chance to finish 2023 as an RB1, and if he stays healthy, I see a world where he finishes in the top eight. Your honor, I will take the starting RB for the Tomlin-led Pittsburgh Steelers every time.