Alabama’s Najee Harris enters the 2021 NFL Draft as arguably the top running back in the class. Many analysts seem to agree that Harris will be the first back off the board come April’s draft. In addition, a number of analysts believe Najee Harris’ draft projection lies somewhere in the back half of the first round with several different landing spots.
In fact, PFN’s Tony Pauline and Matt Williamson have Najee Harris being selected in the first round of their most recent mock drafts. Pauline has Harris going to the Miami Dolphins at 18. On the other hand, Williamson has him taking his talent up north to the Steel City at pick 24.
Both of these teams make our list for the top landing spots for Najee Harris. The overall value of running backs makes Najee Harris’ draft projection difficult, but the consensus seems to be that he is worth the first-round investment.
Najee Harris Draft Projection
Background on Najee Harris
Najee Harris was the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class. Harris was right behind then-UCLA bound Jaelan Phillips by .0005 points on the grade scale. Harris beat out several other prominent recruits like Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Jerry Jeudy, and Tua Tagovailoa. Each of those names went in the first round of last year’s draft, unsurprisingly.
Harris’s career at Alabama started off slow. Stuck in a rotation behind Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris, Najee Harris wasn’t able to shoulder the load and be productive. That changed his junior year, however, when both Jacobs and Damien Harris entered the NFL. It was then Najee Harris’ time.[sv slug=”drizly”]
As a junior, Harris ran for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns while amassing 304 yards on 27 catches. He had drawn enough buzz to declare for the NFL Draft, but he elected to stay at Alabama to boost his stock. What a wise decision that turned out to be.
In 2020, Harris ran for 1,462 yards and 26 touchdowns and racked up 425 receiving yards and 4 receiving touchdowns. Now, Harris leaves as Alabama’s all-time rushing leader and all-time leading scorer, with 46 rushing touchdowns and 3,843 yards.
More impressively, he tied Tim Tebow for most total touchdowns in an SEC career (57). Given the amount of running backs to come through Alabama and all the offensive talent in the SEC’s history, it’s an incredibly impressive career note.
What scheme fits Najee Harris the best?
Most running backs project better in a specific running scheme. In this class, guys like Javonte Williams, Trey Sermon, and Rhamondre Stevenson best fit the downhill gap/power run schemes. That scheme maximizes their skill sets. Others like Michael Carter, Jermar Jefferson, and Kenneth Gainwell are best suited for a zone-oriented run game.
It’s important to distinguish that. Too often, mock drafts will ignore scheme fit for most players. In the case of Najee Harris, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Harris can be the lead back in either scheme. That’s part of why he’s viewed as the top back.
While Harris isn’t the fastest back in this class, the rest of his skill set makes up for that. He’s a patient, smart runner who understands the leverage of his blockers. He’s got smooth feet and doesn’t waste movement navigating the rushing lanes. For a bigger power back, Najee Harris’ elusiveness surprised me. He doesn’t explode out of his cuts, but he does a good job making defenders miss and runs them over when he can’t.
Perhaps the most surprising trait, and one that makes Najee Harris’ draft projection so high, is his ability on third downs. There aren’t many power backs who have the ability to be as effective of a receiving threat as Harris. He’s comfortable out of the backfield and does a good job of attacking the ball in the air.
Najee Harris Landing Spots
Miami is in a great spot for Najee Harris’ draft ceiling with pick 18. The Dolphins were largely ineffective in 2020 with their run game, ranking 25th in EPA/rush, 24th in Rushing Success Rate, and 23rd in rush DVOA.
New co-OC/RBs coach Eric Studesville has long been a gap-scheme coach. Miami tried going with a more zone-oriented scheme last year under Chan Gailey, and the results spoke for themselves. Therefore, a power scheme seems to be in the works in Miami.
Harris’ ability as a power back fits right in at Miami. Not only does he enter in as a good fit, but Miami’s offensive line is full of maulers at the point of attack. Solomon Kindley, Robert Hunt, and recently-acquired Isaiah Wilson are all bullies in the run game. This pick also brings a familiar name with QB Tua Tagovailoa and gives him another weapon to work with.
New York Jets
New Jets head coach Robert Saleh brought several coaches from the Kyle Shanahan-led 49ers, including OC Mike LaFleur and OL coach John Benton. All of these coaches understand the value and importance of being able to run the ball effectively in the NFL. With presumably a new QB with their first selection, pick 23 is another potential landing spot for Najee Harris.
The Jets don’t really have a feature back on the roster, despite Adam Gase’s best efforts to make Frank Gore that guy. Harris would step in right away as the No. 1 guy. With Mekhi Becton and company paving the way, Harris could be productive from the get-go.
Every time I release a mock draft, I have a certain section of Steelers Twitter coming for my head for not fixing the run game in the first round. Often, the run game can’t be “fixed” with a single pick, but hey, what do I know?
With that said, they do have a point. Pittsburgh’s run game last year was largely ineffective (as was much of their offense). The team ranked 29th in EPA/rush, 25th in Rushing Success Rate, and 30th in rushing DVOA.
With James Conner likely not returning to the team, Harris doesn’t really face any legit competition in Pittsburgh for the RB1 spot. While Pittsburgh’s offensive line takes some hits, most notably with Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement, David DeCastro is still there, and there is some young talent left to fill the voids.
James Robinson surprised many as a productive rookie running back, with over a thousand yards as a rookie — and as an undrafted one, no less. However, the raw stats don’t indicate his overall ability.
Robinson ranked just about average across the board in most metrics. He was 18th in DYAR, 25th in DVOA, and 28th in Rushing Success Rate among all rushers with a minimum of 100 carries. He was also 27th in broken tackles/attempt. As we all know, pure rushing yards aren’t an overall indicator of talent.
As such, Jacksonville should consider adding competition to that running back room. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has a ton of experience believing in the run game, and adding Harris with Trevor Lawrence would add two top playmakers to the Jaguars offense.
Perhaps the floor for Najee Harris’ draft projection is Atlanta, who would run to the podium if he were still on the board. Harris would fit right in with Arthur Smith’s work building up Derrick Henry and basing his resurgent Tennessee offense around his ability.
Atlanta was 30th in EPA/rush and Rushing Success Rate, while also ranking 29th in rushing DVOA. Those results just won’t cut it for Arthur Smith’s offense to click and begin to hum.
Atlanta doesn’t have a standout runner on the roster, and Harris would step in as RB1. At pick 35, Atlanta would be right above Miami’s first second-round pick at 36. If Harris is still on the board at that spot, it’s tough to see Atlanta not adding him.
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