The running back position is chronically one of the most sought-after for fantasy football players. (Apart from the zero-RB crowd, and let’s be honest, they love their running backs too, just differently). Every year, the fantasy world follows the same trend with the incoming rookie class. They identify one running back who will be the guy who immediately launches himself to RB1 status.
This year it’s Breece Hall. In 2020, it was Clyde Edwards-Helaire. And, in 2021, it was Najee Harris. Now, I fell into the Edwards-Helaire hype as a teenage fantasy player and invested way too much of my budget in a salary cap draft. As a result, I’ve become much pickier with incoming running backs. So much so that if you look back in my text message exchanges, you will find me convincing my friends not to draft Najee Harris.
Why you ask?
Because Pittsburgh spent a first-round pick on a running back when they had the second-worst run-blocking offense in 2020, per PFF. They also had six running backs on the roster. I was convinced Najee Harris would struggle to gain yardage and spend 2021 in a running back by committee.
I was wrong in most ways and correct in one.
Note: Our Wednesday, July 6th No Punt Intended episode will cover Najee Harris in fantasy football! We welcome special guest Michelle Magdziuk from BallBlast Fantasy and the NFL Network! The show will be digging into the Eagles, Patriots, and Steelers.
Najee Harris in Fantasy Football
His Rookie Season
I was wrong that Harris would end up in a running back committee. No matter how much I willed them to save his snaps, they kept giving him the ball. They did so even with little to no chances at making a deep playoff run. So, he finished with 307 carries for 1,200 yards, 74 receptions for 467 yards, 10 total touchdowns, and was the third-best running back in PPR leagues.
Most notably for Harris, he tied for the most targets amongst all running backs, with Austin Ekeler at 94 targets.
That said, I was right that Pittsburgh’s offensive line would make it challenging for Harris to get those yards. In fact, Pittsburgh had the 9th worst offensive line in the NFL, according to PFF. Behind that line, Harris averaged only 0.93 yards before contact. That tied for 43rd out of 49 running backs with at least 100 carries.
He then proceeded to average nearly three yards after contact per attempt. If you watched the games, you know he was evading multiple tackles often.
Needless to say, Harris had his work cut out for him. Yet, he put in one of the more remarkable fantasy seasons by a rookie running back on record. But what can we expect from the second-year star running back?
Najee Harris is my pick to be the RB1 this season. In building his case as the RB1, three primary factors are at play: the addition of Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers’ offensive line moves, and the history of second-year running backs.
With the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh drafted a new quarterback while bringing in Trubisky as a stop-gap measure. His history of passing to running backs is central to Harris’ potential upside in 2022.
In 2018 and 2019, Trubisky was the primary starter for the Chicago Bears. In those seasons, Chicago running backs had a 23% and 25% target share, respectively. For reference, the median pass attempts by a team in 2021 were 593 (NFL.com). Therefore, a 25% target share would translate to 148 targets.
When Trubisky recorded that 25% target share in 2019, his primary target was Tarik Cohen. Cohen registered 104 targets, behind only Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler. Cohen recorded only 143 total touches and three touchdowns apart from the targets, so he wasn’t a fantasy-relevant running back. By comparison, Harris has an easy path to well over 300 touches, nearly a third of which could come from receptions alone.
The clear pathway to targets provides Harris with a dominant floor, providing much-needed consistency in redraft leagues. Additionally, the Steelers should have a better offense this season. That will provide more touchdown equity for Harris and upside for best-ball leagues.
Not only did the Steelers get a quarterback upgrade, but they also made moves on the offensive line, particularly at center and right guard. According to PFF, Pittsburgh had the 24th-ranked run blocking offense in 2021. Additionally, their highest-ranking run-blocking offensive lineman had a 66.8 PFF run-blocking grade. At center, with the addition of Mason Cole, who ended 2021 with a 75.2 PFF grade for run blocking. They added James Daniels at guard, who has a 71.8 run-blocking PFF score.
The upgrades look even better considering Pittsburgh’s primary run scheme in 2021. Last season was the first time since 2015 that the Steelers primarily used zone running schemes. They changed their go-to run approach to fit the skills of Najee Harris. With the addition of Cole and Daniels comes significant improvements in zone run schemes. Cole received a 72.6 PFF grade and Daniels an 82.2 PFF grade in zone run blocking. Last season, Pittsburgh ran zone schemes 57% of the time. Harris used his vision and quickness to read blocks, evade tackles, and get up the field.
The downside for Harris is that the Steelers have a significant problem at left tackle, with Dan Moore, who had a 52.0 PFF score for run blocking and a 58.2 score in zone schemes, as the current starter. The obvious way to avoid this problem is to run the ball up the middle and to the right, where Pittsburgh primarily designed run plays in 2021.
Overall, Harris gets an improvement at offensive line. Especially in the parts of the field where he gained most of his yardage in 2021.
History is on His Side
Finally, there is a trend of running backs taking a step forward in their second year. Below is a table highlighting some of the prominent RBs’ first- and second-year fantasy finishes.
|Player||Year 1 Fantasy Rank||Year 2 Fantasy Rank|
There are three notable outliers: Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Todd Gurley. Elliott and Barkley are easy to address. They finished their first season as the RB1, and no running back has finished as the RB1 in back-to-back seasons since Priest Holmes did so in 2002 and 2003.
Todd Gurley is more of a true outlier for these purposes, but he finished as the RB1 in his third season, so he still saw the step forward most young running backs do.
Regardless, second-year running backs have a clear tendency to make a significant improvement, with three finishing as the RB1. This year, Najee Harris is poised to do the same and could take the crown as the top RB in fantasy football.
To briefly address the “What about Jonathan Taylor?” crowd. No running back has recorded over 1,400 yards in consecutive seasons since 2010 except for Derrick Henry. Additionally, Matt Ryan is indeed an upgrade over Carson Wentz, which will allow the Colts to rely less on the run game, opening the door for someone else to take over the RB1 spot. My money is on Harris.
A Look Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers
Editor’s Note: We asked our writers to focus on one player, but we don’t want to leave you hanging on the rest of the team. While Austin focused on Najee Harris in fantasy football, here is a quick look at the rest of the Steelers, prepared by either Josh Hudson or Ryan Weisse.
Mitchell Trubisky: It’s hard to think Pittsburgh will be a worse situation for Mitchell Trubisky than Chicago. What will be telling is how much Pittsburgh will change their philosophy of the last few years with Trubisky as their presumed starting QB. While Pittsburgh has exceeded 39 pass attempts per game in three of the previous four seasons, Trubisky has never averaged more than 34.4 attempts per game. Add in the fact the Steelers spent a 1st round pick on Kenny Pickett. The pressure is on Trubisky to lead this team to wins. Quickly. – Josh Hudson
Kenny Pickett: As the only QB with a first-round pedigree, Pickett is the QB1 for dynasty rookie drafts. However, he is not worth your time in redraft unless playing in 2-QB or SuperFlex. He won’t likely start until November, so be patient. -Ryan Weisse
Diontae Johnson: Did you really think anyone else would write about Diontae Johnson here? Come on. Johnson has led the Steelers in targets in each of the last three years, averaging over 10 targets a game in 2021. What will determine much of Johnson’s value heading into 2022 will not only be the supposed improvement from noodle arm Ben Roethlisberger to the much younger and spry Trubisky/Pickett combo but expected pass volume. Would any of us be surprised if the Steelers threw the ball less than 600 times? If that happens, Johnson’s value will be less based on targets and more on his ability to gain yards after the catch. And that’s a good thing since he’s averaged over 5.0 yards after the catch per reception in two of his three seasons in the league and ranked 6th in the league last year in total YAC. – Josh Hudson
Chase Claypool: Claypool believes he is one of the best three WRs in the NFL. Clearly, he is untrustworthy, so do not draft him to your fantasy team unless you like liars. -Ryan Weisse
George Pickens: Pickens’ draft stock, being taken in the 2nd Round, should make him an exciting prospect. Playing with Mitch Trubisky and being behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool makes him far less attractive. He’s not worth a pick in redraft. -Ryan Weisse
Pat Freiermuth: The upside to this Steelers passing offense? If everyone is healthy, it’s really centralized. It will funnel to the WR1, the RB1, and the TE1. Lucky for Freiermuth, he’s the TE1. Much of his value last year came from TDs, though. With an expected dip in overall pass attempts this year, ‘Muth will need those TDs to remain high as target volume likely won’t exceed last year. And that makes his ADP of TE11 a little too steep for my blood. – Josh Hudson
We hope you enjoyed our look at Najee Harris for fantasy football this season. You can find all of our A Look Inside articles here!
If you’re prepping for your dynasty drafts, you can also find our rookie consensus rankings here.