We May Need to Pump the Brakes on Najee Harris in 2021 (Fantasy Football)

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If you came to this article because you’re a diehard Najee Harris fan and are looking for a reason to think I’m hating on him, then you’re the exact person this article is aimed at. I’m not asking you to change your mind, but I am asking you to consider why you hold the stance that you do because I assure you I’ve done the same. Even though I never hide my thoughts about drafting a back in the first round, I actually think Najee Harris is an excellent player. I don’t hate his talent, draft profile, or production. I thought he deserved to be the first back off the board, and wouldn’t be shocked at all if he turns out to be a consistent producer in the NFL. 

The question is, what level of production will justify his rookie year ADP? His current best ball ADP sits around pick 28, but there’s a lot of historical precedents that lead us to assume that number will rise significantly by Week one. If he ends up creeping into the second round of twelve-team leagues, I will stay far away from him in redraft. If his ADP falls or stays where it is now, most of my argument should be taken with a massive grain of NaCL. Since Twitter is a brutal place, I felt compelled to qualify this discussion first. 

Now that I’ve done that….In true Eight Mile fashion, let’s address the main things that people have to say against me. Two primary arguments come up the most when people tout Mr. Harris, so I examined them in full before I took this stance:

Argument #1: Draft Capital Indicates Volume, and Volume is King

This is definitely true, in a nutshell. The landscape for running backs has changed pretty dramatically over the past decade, so it’s important to use recent examples as often as possible. Since the most recent time we didn’t have a first-round running back was 2014, I chose 2015 as the cutoff. In the six seasons since then, ten running backs were selected in the first round of their respective drafts. Collectively, that group averaged 209 carries in their first season, and a handful of them saw significant volume in the passing game. Christian McCaffery essentially acted as a receiver in year one, and both Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley were given elite volume totals on the ground. In short, it’s factually accurate to say that first-round draft capital leads to significant carry totals in year one. 

The question I’d fire back at the ‘volume is king’ crowd is this: does the volume always lead to fantasy production, and does that production justify ADP? The short answer here is….sometimes. 

Amongst that group of ten running backs, only four of them finished as an RB1 in their rookie season. Zeke and Saquon Barkley were far and away the most impressive fantasy assets, and both CMC and Leonard Fournette provided fantasy floors that were more than serviceable. The rest of the group was spread out in terms of return on investment. Josh Jacobs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Melvin Gordon returned RB2 value, while Todd Gurley and Sony Michel landed in the flex/RB3 range. Rashaad Penny was the only genuine flop from this group, but it’s safe to say he was an outlier on a team full of bizarre fantasy football trends. 

If only two backs finished in the top ten at their position in year one, and 60% of this group finished outside of the top 12, then is it really crazy to avoid the risk in the first 24 picks? Recent trends actually point to that being the smarter decision, not a contrarian one. Volume may be king, but more times than not that volume doesn’t justify a top 24 pick in fantasy drafts. 

But, but, but Jason (voice of public opinion sighting)….. “Aren’t the Steelers a perfect spot for Najee?”

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Argument #2: The Steelers are an Excellent Landing Spot

Pittsburgh has a reputation for being a tough-nosed football team, and in a lot of circles, they’re praised as a run-first offense that wants to hit you in the mouth as often as possible. Narratives are fine, but statistics always tell a story. The Steelers are not only a pass-first offense, they’re one of the most pass-happy teams in recent memory. Pittsburgh ranked second in the league in 2020 in passing percentage, second only to Jacksonville. It’s important to note that Matt Canada was promoted to Offensive Coordinator this past offseason, so some of that could change. He was the quarterbacks coach previously, so I wouldn’t hold my breath that he will heavily pivot back to a run-first philosophy. We just have to leave room for potential adjustments to the scheme. 

In terms of the keys to success for a running back in fantasy football, a few metrics lead the way amongst the elite players in the league. A strong offensive line, a lot of red zone opportunities, and a lot of work in the passing game. If you agree with all three of those things, and you’re a big fan of Najee Harris, now might be the time to look away. 

The Steelers had the 31st best run-blocking unit in 2020 per PFF, and finished 23rd in red zone attempts per game. A big part of the poor red-zone usage was because the team ranked 29th in pace. They played slow, they couldn’t run block, and they didn’t spend a lot of time at the goal line. Saquon Barkley and Leonard Fournette were the only rookies to finish as top ten fantasy backs while running behind a bottom ten run-blocking unit, and Barkley was an outlier from both a talent and a passing game standpoint. Fournette finished as the RB8 in his rookie year, and it’s reasonable to assume that’s the ceiling for Najee if he doesn’t get peppered with passing game work. That would return value on his ADP, but that’s the best possible scenario unless the Pittsburgh line turns it around. The risk is real, more so than other players in his range. He’s a strong receiver, but he’s not Christian McCaffery and he’s certainly not Saquon Barkley. Even Fournette was a stronger prospect than Najee, and the draft capital was more significant since he was a top ten pick. 

Too often we see NFL teams try to cover up poor offensive line play with running back draft capital, and it very rarely works out for them. It occasionally works out for fantasy managers, but it’s not as rock-solid of a strategy as people make it out to be. Ezekiel Elliott walked into a dream situation behind the top offensive line in the league, while Barkley and CMC did most of their damage through the air. If Najee Harris managers hope for a top ten finish, they better call up Matt Canada and demand that he throw the ball to Harris constantly. It’s not impossible, but it’s a risky bet for a team that has a lot of strong pass catchers elsewhere. 

Conclusion

He’s not a generational talent, but a very good one. He’s not running behind a strong offensive line, but a poor one. He’s not projected to see exceptional goal-line work, but he will see a decent amount. Barring any major adjustments under Matt Canada, Najee’s upside is capped, and history is working against him. The volume may be a guarantee, but his return on investment is far from it. To be fair, I feel this same way about Josh Jacobs and David Montgomery, who are in the same ADP range. If you want a top ten back, you should target high-octane offenses and RBs with passing game work. Not just carry volume. It’s an outdated practice, and it’s time for us to update it as a community when we discuss volume as a whole. I’ll let my league mates reach for the shiny new rookie in Pittsburgh, while I snag players with higher ceilings in the first three rounds.

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