In the modern NFL, there tends to be a surface analysis of running backs. The category for what works for a modern running back is getting smaller, and teams are becoming more specific in their desires in the position. Being big and tough isn’t all that it takes to succeed anymore. Modern running backs have to be versatile, and through this necessity, a misconception has been borne regarding Alabama RB Najee Harris.
On the surface, Harris seems like an old-school back in an evolving world of football. He’s 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, and he doesn’t offer game-breaking speed or the ability to elongate space consistently. But beyond the surface evaluation, Harris brings a lot more to the table than his profile would indicate.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at Harris and explain why his measured athletic limitations shouldn’t hinder his bid to be RB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft. With a blend of elusiveness, power, and vision, as well as stellar receiving ability, Harris has every tool necessary to be a valuable weapon on the NFL stage.
Alabama RB Najee Harris passes the modern evaluation
Harris’ versatility as a runner
In the modern NFL, running backs need to have a sort of dual-wielded versatility. They have to be able to change up their process and succeed in different ways on any given run, but they also have to have versatility outside their primary role as a runner, providing value in other ways, such as receiving and pass blocking.
Some larger running backs are known as straight-line runners. These kinds of backs don’t necessarily expand on what the offensive line gives them. They’re not very versatile from the outset, and when adversity strikes, they aren’t the best at diverting course and adapting at a moment’s notice.
Harris doesn’t fall into this category, however. While Harris does have the power and contact balance to be an effective straight-line rusher, he also has the foresight and lateral quickness to change up his approach at the start of a run.
The play below does well to encapsulate this. Just as Harris gets the hand-off, defenders gain penetration on the right side of the line. Harris recognizes this and quickly plants his feet, bursting off to the left, where he finds an open lane. He then sheds a tackle and explodes into open space, where he manages to get a big gain.
Harris was only following his blocks here, but to do so, he had to make a quick, proactive adjustment at the line, and he was able to do so. That proactive adjustment allowed him to extend the play, and as a result, he was able to glean out more production with his contact balance and fast playing speed.
Here’s another example of Harris using his quickness at the line to unlock opportunities further down the field. Here, Harris again has to adapt to uncertainty, as a lineman in his path beats the blocker very early. Harris uses a quick cut to the right to get the lineman off balance, then launches forward and uses his physicality to push defenders off the first-down line.
Make no mistake: Harris is a legit bulldozer. He possesses the ability to create yards through sheer force. But he’s also more explosive and agile than advertised, and he often uses his explosiveness and agility to help open up space for him to use his more dominant traits.
It’s this combined use of traits that proves Harris isn’t just a straight-line runner; he knows how and when to use certain traits, and his mental quickness allows him to pick and choose effectively.
Harris’ ability as a receiver
Ironically, running is only half the battle for running backs nowadays. Receiving has always been part of the game for running backs, but now, it takes on an added emphasis. Offensive coordinators seek to have players who can provide an impact at multiple spots and keep defenses guessing with their personnel packages.
Standing at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, with power as his most prevalent defining trait, Harris doesn’t seem like a receiving back at first glance. But in 2019, he was a very proficient receiver for the Alabama Crimson Tide, logging 304 yards and seven scores on 27 catches, good for a touchdown percentage of over 25 percent.
Production through the air
Despite his relative lack of volume as a receiver, Harris produced exceptional results with his limited amount of catches, and the clip below helps to show why. Harris is very good at finding seams to occupy near the line of scrimmage, and he knows how to enter defenders’ blind spots to maximize space in the open field.
In this clip, Harris sneaks out behind a defender at the line of scrimmage, catches a short pass, and takes it to the house. You might remember this clip from the season; it basically went viral, as Harris uses his strength to stiff-arm a defender into oblivion, then promptly leaps over another. If there’s any clip that can prove Harris is the full package, it’s this one.
Look how smooth Harris is as he catches the ball and then turns upfield to seek more yardage. Harris has a good feel for receiving out of the backfield, and while some running backs can turn upfield too quickly and overlook the process of securing the catch, Harris is very measured in his approach, and he does well to focus through the catch process.
There’s also this clip, which applies Harris’ ability to adapt quickly in a receiving context. Shortly after catching the pass on the right side of the field, Harris senses instant contact, and he uses his lateral quickness to avoid an impending collision. He then stacks another juke on top of his first cut and darts up the field for extra yardage.
Harris has both the feel to be a natural receiver and the run-after-catch ability to expand on air yards. His quick processing allows him to excel in all phases of the pass play, from manipulating defenders’ blind spots to gain separation, to manipulating their size with a brutal stiff arm.
Najee Harris has a complete, RB1-worthy skillset
A quote from Matt Valdovinos, in his top-10 running back rankings for the 2021 NFL Draft, perfectly describes Harris:
“I went into last season believing that Harris was one of the more overrated prospects in college football. He proved me completely wrong. Harris is a tenacious runner with dominant size and strong production. While it’s easy to look at him and assume he’s just a power back, Harris is so much more. He’s a phenomenal receiver and a load to tackle. Although he doesn’t possess elite athletic ability, he still possesses requisite burst and impressive wiggle for a 230-pound back.”
On the surface, Harris’ size and physicality will leave many to assume that that’s all he brings to the table. But Harris is far more than an old-school power back, as Valdovinos states.
Harris brings some of the best attributes of the power game and applies them with modern nuances, and that’s what makes him so exciting and one of the top running backs in college football. He’s a modern back going undercover with old-school power and strength, and his combination of traits should have scouts salivating in 2021.