What are the realistic expectations for Najee Harris?

Steelers RB Najee Harris one to watch out for

By: Brady Akins

There’s nothing more exciting than a fantasy football rookie. And among all the rookies from the 2021 Draft class, there might be no rookie more exciting than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-round pick, Najee Harris.

Harris, the running back out of Alabama, has the tall task of turning around the Pittsburgh Steelers dreadful rushing offense from 2020– something he could definitely do if all goes right.

The question then becomes less of can he turn it around, and more of will he turn things around.

Well, maybe. Let’s see.

Optimistic: 

You would be hard-pressed to find a rookie running back with more talent than Najee Harris. For that matter, you might struggle to find many running backs at all with more pure talent than the former Alabama standout.

The Steelers’ first-round pick excelled in college as a powerful, athletic, dual-threat player at running back– with a penchant for explosive running and a nose for the endzone. Anchoring that to specific stats, Harris finished his final two seasons in college with a combined 2,690 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry, 39 rushing touchdowns, 70 catches, 729 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.

Just about everything you would want from a potential fantasy RB1

And, without question, Harris’ ceiling, even as a rookie, should be set at high-end RB1. Not only because of his skill and college resume, but because of the opportunity he should get.

The Steelers have made a habit over the years of maximizing the potential of their skill position players– with the running back position standing out as evidence. LeVeon Bell, the former Pittsburgh star running back, wrapped up his Steelers’ tenure with two All-Pro seasons and three Pro Bowl appearances. In the two seasons he’s played since then, he’s combined for 1,117 rushing yards on 327 carries– just 3.4 yards per attempt. 

Pittsburgh elevated Bell to All-Pro heights, and with the word around training camp being the Steelers want to make Harris a dedicated three-down, every situation running back, they can do the same for their rookie.

Pessimistic:

Harris can play the role of three-down back all he wants, it won’t matter if he doesn’t get the touches.

For as talented as Harris is, he now finds himself on a Pittsburgh offense that featured an abominable rushing attack last season. In 2020, the Steelers finished bottom five in the NFL in total rushing attempts, last in rushing yards by over 100, and last in yards per attempt at a lowly 3.6.

While it’s true that the Steelers lacked a true running back talent like Harris, they also weren’t putting their backs in positions to succeed either, trotting out an offensive line that finished 24th in ESPN’s run block win rate metric– and lost just about every starter from an already below-average position group. 

That’s a far cry from Harris’ luxurious lifestyle in Alabama, with an offensive line so good it saw three of its five starters get selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

For as good as his numbers were in 2020, Harris hasn’t had to deal with adversity as much as he will in Pittsburgh. Things could turn sour in an unexpected flash for Harris.

Realistic: 

Harris’ offensive situation is… less than ideal. Playing for an offensive line that will likely feature five new starters, and for an offense that ran the ball worse than any other team in 2020, in big part by a ‘quick pass early and often’ design.

Expecting Harris to put up numbers similar to what he produced at Alabama would be criminally insane. Even if he is a three-down back as advertised, that doesn’t mean he’ll be getting the same volume as other such backs like Christian McCaffrey, who’s averaged 25 touches per game in each of his last two seasons. 

And that’s the gold standard for running backs. McCaffrey is the pinnacle of volume monsters, and he plays on an offense where just about everything runs through him. If the Steelers don’t make dramatic changes to their offensive philosophy, Harris won’t come anything close to that.

With all that said… 

Harris is too good to not overcome the issues plaguing the Steelers. Even with poor run blocking, Harris’ potential as a receiver will keep him a factor in the offense. While his skill as a runner might be good enough at times to overcome an onslaught of defenders blasting through an inexperienced offensive line.

Maybe don’t expect Harris to be the second coming of Marshall Faulk from day one– but he can still be a quality contributor to the Steelers offense, and your fantasy offense as well.

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