Joe Mixon or Najee Harris: Which AFC North RB should you draft?

Going virtually next to each other in fantasy football drafts, which AFC North RB should you draft between Najee Harris and Joe Mixon?

As the days continue to dwindle until the start of the NFL’s regular season, fantasy football managers find themselves needing to make difficult decisions, going through the pros and cons amongst potential picks. One of those is at running back with two players with high-upside for this season in Cincinnati Bengals RB Joe Mixon and Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris. With both sitting in the second round of fantasy football drafts, which AFC North RB should you draft — Harris or Mixon?

The case for Joe Mixon over Najee Harris

Entering 2020, Mixon was coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard rushing and 280-yard receiving seasons while scoring 8 or more touchdowns. Over this stretch, he was the RB10 (17.4 ppg) and RB13 (14.1 ppg) while averaging 0.79 fantasy points per touch. His 2,305 rushing yards were seventh-most over this time. Since 2018, the only RBs to average more rushing attempts per game (17.6) are Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, Josh Jacobs, and Dalvin Cook. 

Mixon’s 2020 season (much like for many of us) didn’t go as planned. He recorded 428 yards on 119 carries with 3 touchdowns, adding 21 receptions (26 targets) for 138 yards and another score across just six games due to a foot injury. This led to the narrative that Mixon is both injury-prone and someone to avoid. However, that has gone too far for me and has pushed Mixon to become a value.

Why you should draft Joe Mixon in 2021 fantasy football leagues

While he only played in six games, Mixon averaged 24 opportunities per game in those contests and 16.6 fantasy points (RB10). We have always wanted him to receive the coveted passing game work. Previously, that role went to Giovani Bernard, averaging 52.5 targets per season compared to Mixon’s 40. 

Bernard is gone, though, and the Bengals enter the 2021 season with the fourth-most vacated RB targets, and Mixon will receive the lion’s share of those. Head coach Zac Taylor reiterated during training camp that Mixon would be more involved in the passing game.

As for injuries before 2020, Mixon missed two games as a rookie in 2017 due to a concussion. In 2018, he missed two games after undergoing minor arthroscopic knee surgery. That’s four missed games in three seasons. That’s it.

He has a clear and relatively straightforward path to over 300 opportunities, with 60+ in the passing game. To land him in the back end of the second round is stealing. So long as he stays on the field, a concern that can be said for any running back.

The case for Najee Harris over Joe Mixon

While there is no denying what Mixon could be, Harris is equally talented and is on a far better offense. Harris has the frame (6’1″ and 232 pounds) to be a true three-down back, and I expect to see him in that role from Day 1.

In his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide, Harris recorded a whopping 2,690 yards on 460 carries, scoring 39 touchdowns on the ground. But he is also a receiving threat, totaling 70 receptions for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns.

People saw what James Conner did last season and instantly place that same type of production on Harris, but that is not the case. The Steelers were 28th in attempts (373), 32nd in yards (1,351), 30th in RB fantasy points per game via the run (12.94), and 30th in fantasy points per rush (0.56) because they abandoned the run. In the final six games, the offense led the league in passing percentage at 72%. As a result, their RBs averaged just 14.3 rushes per game over that span. That’s not going to cut it in 2021.

Why you should draft Najee Harris in 2021 fantasy football leagues

That will not happen again. The Steelers know for them to succeed and compete in a difficult AFC North, they must establish the running game. With Conner now in Arizona, Harris inherits a massive role as the Steelers enter 2021 with 45.3% of their carries vacated from the year prior.

Harris has all the makings to be the new version of Le’Veon Bell for the Pittsburgh out the gates. While he won’t average the 6.4 targets per game that Bell did, 4-5 is well within reason as Harris is a far better receiver than people believe. On a 17-game pace, that’s over 70 targets alone, which is Austin Ekeler territory.

Barring injury, I don’t see a path where Harris is not a top-12 running back in 2021, something I cannot say for Mixon.

Which AFC North RB should you draft?

For those looking to draft Harris in fantasy, you need to be confident that he can outperform the offensive line concerns. Also, Ben Roethlisberger needs to remain healthy and efficient. Otherwise, why should they respect the deep threat if he can’t get the ball to someone like Chase Claypool any further than 40 yards downfield on a crow hop? 

There is also the wear and tear and the need to get your legs under you. Harris has never played in more than 15 games (2018), and that season he saw just 117 carries. Even at his most active (2020), he maxed out at 294 touches. But the SEC is not the NFL, as much as they might believe they are.

For Mixon, it comes down to the passing volume. Without it, he requires massive carries to return usable weeks. Of the seven RBs who averaged 20 touches per game or more (McCaffrey, Henry, Cook, Robinson, Jacobs, Montgomery), Mixon was last in fantasy football points per touch at 3.72 and was sixth in points per game — narrowly beating out Jacobs at 15.4.

Don’t forget, the Bengals have their own OL issues to work through as well. Plus, what will the target share be for Mixon when Joe Burrow has Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd?

While no pick is wrong, I lean more towards Harris in drafts

I am very bullish on Harris. Even in my projections, I have him ending the season above Mixon. Still, neither RB is a bad pick or one you would regret in fantasy football. There might be a slightly more implied risk with Mixon, assuming he sees the targets and not Samaje Perine or Chris Evans. 

No doubt, Mixon is great. And in the end, we are splitting hairs. For me, the likelihood of the Steelers’ defense keeping games tight ends up helping Harris more than the Bengals’ defense being, well, awful, forcing negative game scripts. This, along with a chance of an injury, is enough to push Harris over Mixon for me on draft day. But I am more than happy ending up with either RB on my fantasy football roster in 2021.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.