The first running back selected in the NFL draft is always the biggest source for fantasy optimism and this year is no different when the Steelers tabbed Najee Harris with the 1.24 pick. No matter that five quarterbacks, four wide receivers and even a tight end were selected first, Harris attracts the highest rookie draft picks and auction dollars. And for good reason.
No position cranks out immediate rookie fantasy points as running backs. No position has a shorter life span than the American Professional Running Back. Bottom line – they have the most touches of any position and offer the best potential. And the recent “first running back drafted” include Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Todd Gurley.
The most attractive element with Harris and those players is that they went to teams that did not use a backfield committee. Most NFL teams split up the load between short yardage, first and second downs, third down, receiving, goal line, and such depending on the talent and their need.
Harris was the workhorse for Alabama, rushing 209 times in 2019 while the next best Brian Robinson only carried 96. Last season in their National Championship run, Harris handled 251 rushes to only 91 for Robinson.
He also caught 43 passes as the busiest receiver on the team other than Heisman Winner DeVonta Smith. Though a four-year player, he only started the final two seasons so he’s not worn down as many elite backs leaving college. Alabama loves to ride their top back – just ask Derrick Henry.
He offers yet another big back from Alabama that is poised to wreck NFL defenses. Harris is 6-2, 230 pounds and runs around a 4.5 40-time. He’s a deadly combination of size, speed and power with the ability to catch like a third-down back. He is very quick, patient, and has great vision. He’s even a solid pass blocker with plenty of size to protect the quarterback when needed.
He can be a violent runner and may end up shortening his eventual career with his willingness to take on tacklers and get the extra yards. But that spells success as a rookie back and hence, the first one chosen last April.
The rookie shows up in Pittsburgh as the new starting running back. James Conner left for Arizona. Benny Snell is the likely No. 2 back again this year but there is talk about him not making the final cut. Kalen Ballage was also signed but he only managed 3.3 yards on his career-high 91 carries for the Chargers and only that because he was asked to replace Austin Ekeler for three games. Anthony McFarland was a fourth-round rookie but only ran for 113 yards on 33 carries (3.4 yards per carry).
Harris is the only Steelers’ back with any pedigree or expectations.
The Steelers’ offense bogged down last year with James Conner and Benny Snell unable to run the ball. The backfield combined for just 1,183 rushing yards (No. 29) and 350 receiving yards (No. 30). This from a backfield that relied on Le’Veon Bell to great success just a couple of seasons prior.
The Steelers offensive line is no longer an elite unit and is not an advantage. But the passing offense hopes to improve with a healthier Ben Roethlisberger throwing farther down the field this year. That helps spread out the defense and yields plenty of opportunities to dump the ball off to the running back.
The Steelers also enjoy the No. 5 strength of schedule for rushing. This is, by far, the best situation that any rookie running back will encounter this season. There are no other first-year backs that are locks to lead their backfields in touches.
Great situation, great rushing schedule, tremendous success in college against top-flight opponents, all the measurables of an elite workhorse, and minimal competition for touches. He’s going as the No. 12 running back in fantasy drafts, around the middle of the second round.
You’ll never see him that cheap again.