2021 Fantasy Football: Why You Should Draft Najee Harris

by Rob Lorge
2021 Fantasy Football Rookie Running Backs

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a strong history of being a powerhouse, smack you in the mouth, run-oriented kind of offense. And they needed a big, physical back to be the engine. They paid a premium in today's age to get it - especially with the way running backs are being devalued across the league. Despite this devaluation across the league, the Steelers still felt compelled to use a first-round pick on Najee Harris. That level of confidence from the organization should give you confidence as a fantasy football owner. It's one of the many reasons why you should draft Najee Harris.

The Steelers knew they needed a new workhorse running back. Someone that could drive their offense. Especially with Big Ben getting older. Najee Harris can be the focal point of the offense. He was drafted to be just that. And you should feel confident drafting Najee Harris to be the same for your fantasy football team.

At his current ADP and running back ranking he's a guy that presents with a lot of value right now. And he's got the upside we're always looking for. The kind of upside that can help us win championships.

Najee is not someone you should be shying away from in any of your leagues. In fact, I'm advocating for you to go get him on your team. Here are the reasons why you should want Najee Harris on your fantasy football team.

2021 Fantasy Football: Why You Should Draft Najee Harris

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Volume Is King - Always

Currently, Najee Harris is ranked as the 17th overall running back on FantasyPros by 48 experts. How is this possible? The Steelers were, by all accounts, a terrible running football team in 2020. There are several reasons why that was true. First and foremost, their running backs simply were not good. James Conner spent the year banged up and missing games. His overall effectiveness was affected even when he was on the field. Benny Snell averaged 3.3 yards per carry. That's abysmal.

Secondly, their offensive line vastly underperformed. To be fair though, David DeCastro and Zach Banner missed several games and spent the majority of the season at less than 100%. When you look at what the Steelers' running backs did last year it's easy to see how Najee Harris is only ranked 17th. But here's the thing, 2020 was an outlier.

The No. 1 indicator of success when it comes to running backs is volume. It is by and large the most important factor to fantasy football glory. If this isn't your first year playing fantasy football the saying "volume is king" will surely come to mind. And it's true. Volume IS king.

We've seen it time and time again. James Robinson finished as the RB7 last year despite playing for the worst team in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars. And he missed two games! David Montgomery finished as RB4 playing for the Chicago Bears. Da Bears! In 2019 we saw Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley finish as the RB9 and RB10 respectively even though their teams, Jaguars and the Giants were terrible. Volume truly is king.

Volume doesn't have the record Father Time does, which is currently undefeated (although when do we have to say Tom Brady has officially defeated Father Time?). There are examples of when volume didn't reign supreme, but it's extremely rare.

The first thing we need to do when looking at Najee Harris' fantasy prospects for 2021 is to figure out the kind of volume he's looking at as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. So let's take a look at the numbers. Because the history and the numbers are on Najee Harris' side and show he's extremely likely to out-perform his current RB17 ranking at FantasyPros.

Najee Harris is Their Guy

In the table below you'll find how many carries, targets, and catches were given to running backs on the Steelers in each given year. In parenthesis will be the percentage of that work given to the starter. Next to the year will be another number in parenthesis and this will indicate how many games the starting running back missed.

YearCarriesTargetsCatchesTotal Touches
2020 (3)322 (53%)80 (54%)60 (58%)382 (53%)
2019 (6)336 (35%)107 (36%)91 (37%)427 (35%)
2018 (3)300 (72%)104 (68%)84 (65%)384 (70%)
2017 (1)385 (83%)107 (99%)85 (100%)470 (86%)
2016 (4)373 (70%)124 (76%)96 (78%)469 (72%)
2015331 (88%)73 (92%)64 (92%)395 (87%)
2014374 (78%)123 (85%)96 (89%)470 (79%)
2013 (3)351 (70%)95 (70%)66 (68%)417 (69%)
2012 (10)3688564432
2011 (1)386 (60%)65 (43%)48 (38%)434 (57%)
2010418 (78%)75 (45%)58 (40%)476 (73%

A couple of things stand out when you look at this table. First, I want to point out the sheer number of touches the Steelers' running backs have averaged over the past 11 years. 432! But the number I really want to bring to your attention is the overall number of touches given to the starting running back when they missed four games or less.

There are nine such seasons. In those seasons, the Steelers ran the ball 3,240 times. The starting running back received 2,348 of those or 72%. In those same seasons, the Steelers' running backs had 657 catches. The starter caught 475 or 72%. In total, the starting back has averaged 333 touches when they missed four games or less. And consider, that would be an even higher number had the starters not missed as many games as they did. As a fantasy owner, that's a number you love to see.

Najee Harris will be a rookie, but there's no reason to expect that to slow him down. In Le'Veon Bell's rookie season he received 244 carries, 68 targets, and 45 catches in just 13 games. Over a 16 game season, he was pacing at 300 carries, 84 targets, and 55 catches. We all know Le'Veon Bell was an absolute monster during his time in Pittsburgh while Najee Harris is unknown by virtue of his rookie status.

However, it's important to note Pittsburgh drafted Najee with the 24th overall pick and he was the first running back off the board. Bell was drafted 48th overall and was the second running back off the board. Najee Harris had a better college career. Najee Harris was the better college prospect. And Najee Harris was more highly regarding entering the NFL Draft.

After using a first-round pick on Najee Harris, the message is clear. Najee Harris is their guy. And they're going to use him. That has been Mike Tomlin's philosophy for a long time. He prefers to have one workhorse running back who handles the vast majority of the touches. The only years where that has not been true have been the seasons where their starter missed significant time.

Looking at the Steelers' history and draft capital used to acquire Harris' services, we can feel very confident he is going to be a busy man in 2021. The other reason to feel confident about that, there's virtually no one else on the roster who is going to compete with him. The No. 2 running back on the depth chart, Benny Snell, holds a career 3.6 YPC average. He's only received 18 targets in two seasons. There is a massive role awaiting Najee Harris by default.

We have seen a decrease in running back touches ever since Bell's exit, but even in James Conner's first-year audition in 2018 he had 215 carries and 55 catches in 13 games. That means he was pacing at 265 carries and 68 catches for a total of 333 touches. This is conveniently the 11-year touch average for a Steelers starting running back.

Three Down Workload

The big question is what should we expect from Najee Harris' workload? In Le'Veon Bell's rookie season the running backs touched the ball 417 times with Bell handling the majority of those. I expect the Steelers want to get back to being a running football team to some degree. They have a top-tier defense, an aging quarterback, and they just used a first-round pick on a running back. If you asked Siri when should an NFL time want to run the football more, she would tell you when you have a top-tier defense, an aging quarterback, and a first-round running back. And if Siri knows it, I'm going to trust Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach knows it too.

Najee Harris profiles as a three-down, workhorse right off the bat. You don't need to be concerned about him coming off the field in passing situations. He had 43 catches his senior year at Alabama for 425 yards. That's a very healthy 9.9 YPR average. For a running back, that is really good. He made multiple contested catches in college and looks comfortable catching the football. With an older, immobile quarterback behind what might be a shaky offensive line, it's fair to expect a healthy number of dump-off passes to Harris in 2021. He's an excellent option in both standard and PPR scoring formats.

The Steelers defense is one of the best in the NFL. Because of that, we don't need to worry about too many negative game scripts for Harris. He'll actually get the benefit of getting to milk the clock out a few weeks out of the season. Because of those two factors and because I believe Mike Tomlin wants to take the ball out of his aging quarterback more than it was last year, I'm anticipating the Steelers giving their running backs a total of 415-425 touches. This would be slightly below their 11-year average.

If we're working off about 420 touches, I expect Najee Harris to receive around 300 of them. That would come to about a 71% share, which is right in line with the workload averages during the seasons where the Steelers' didn't have significant injury concerns at the position.


The History of Fantasy Football and Remember, History Repeats Itself

The fantasy history of running backs who have received 300 touches or more is extremely friendly. Dating back to 2012 (the last year FantasyPros keeps track of fantasy points) there have been 58 running backs who have received 300 or more touches. Since FantasyPros only has standard and PPR scoring histories from 2012 and the later seasons, all of the following statistics are based on a full-PPR scoring system.

35 of those 58 running backs have finished RB5 overall or higher. There have only been nine times where a running back who received 300+ touches failed to finish in the top-10. The average finish for all 58 running backs is RB5.7. And the lowest any running back has ever finished with that many touches is RB17.

FantasyPros is currently ranking Najee Harris at RB17. That kind of ranking feels like you're buying Najee Harris at his floor. And if you're able to get him there, you should be thrilled. But don't be afraid to draft him higher than that. The upside is there.

Harris is joining the 12th best scoring offense in the NFL. And there's a very good chance Najee Harris makes the offense even better. There are going to be plenty of scoring opportunities. The passing game with Big Ben under center with Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and Diontae Johnson split out wide should keep defenses honest and from stacking the box with seven and eight-man fronts. This should also help mitigate any concerns about what looks to be a below-average offensive line.

He's A Freak Athlete

The offensive line seems to be the biggest worry as it relates to Najee Harris' fantasy value in 2021. Luckily for the Steelers and fantasy football owners everywhere, Najee Harris is prepared to overcome that disadvantage. He's built like a tank for starters. He's 6'2" and 230 pounds. And yet despite weighing that much, he ran an unofficial 4.45 forty. For a quick reference point, Alvin Kamara ran a 4.53, and Christian McCaffrey ran a 4.49, two guys you might have heard of.

According to Pro Football Focus, Harris ranked second in the country in missed tackles forced, third in yards after contact, and seventh in carries of 15-plus yards. If Najee has to run behind a below-average offensive line, he has the physical gifts to do so and still be effective.

Final Thoughts

When 2021 is in the books I expect Najee Harris to be a back-end RB1. The efficiency numbers in Pittsburgh may not be great due to lackluster line play, but he'll more than makeup for it in volume. I believe Najee Harris is going to come in and command a true workhorse role from day one.

The extra 17th game makes stat predictions different and it's hard to know what is good because we've been so conditioned to 16-game averages. To help with this, I'm going to provide 16 and 17 game projections, just so you can get an idea of what kind of workload I believe Najee Harris is in store for.

I am predicting 257 carries for Najee Harris totaling 1,054 yards. He'll also have 53 catches for 391 yards. Harris will also have 10 total touchdowns. This kind of stat line would give Harris around 232 fantasy points in half-PPR formats. This would be right in between Jonathan Taylor and James Robinson last season. Good for an RB7 finish.

When you factor in the 17th game, I believe Najee Harris will have 272 carries for 1,115 yards. He'll also add 56 catches for 411 yards and 10 total touchdowns. This might seem like an aggressive projection, but who else is on the roster? There is no one else. And isn't using a first-round pick on a running back a little aggressive in its own right?

Even if you don't think Harris will get quite that many touches hopefully you're able to see the immense value in his current FantasyPros ranking of RB17. For all of the reasons listed, this is why you need Najee Harris on your fantasy football team this season.

Be sure to check out more of our Fantasy Football content from the F6P Staff.

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