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Fantasy Football: Does Najee Harris have what it takes to be the Steelers' next great RB?

May 4, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex during rookie minicamp, Friday, May 14, 2021 in Pittsburgh, PA. Mandatory Credit: Karl Roster/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

My lovely employer PFF has made a habit over the years of chastising any team weak-minded enough to select a running back inside of the draft’s first 32 picks. I won’t disagree with the real life notion that it’s a bit irresponsible to pay a running back first-round draft capital in the NFL’s salary-cap environment; we have plenty of evidence that teams are better off devoting their money elsewhere.

However, the important thing to realize in fantasy football land is that first-round RBs typically enter the league with far more guaranteed volume than most rookies. Money talks, so does draft capital, and with this in mind: We in the fantasy community should be nothing other than thrilled about the Steelers selecting Alabama RB Najee Harris with the NFL draft’s No. 25 overall pick.

What follows is a breakdown on what made Harris such a nightmare for SEC defenses over the years and whether or not he can replicate this success at the next level.

Harris is the definition of a three-down RB

PFF stated the following about Harris in our 2021 NFL Draft Guide:

“The common rule of thumb for running backs is usually to declare as soon as possible, but there's a real chance Harris made himself some money with his play this year. He doubled his touchdown total from 13 on the ground in 2019 to 26 this season and maintained his efficiency despite a massive workload. Harris' ball skills keep him inside our top three backs despite not being much of a home run threat. His catch radius is one of the biggest you'll ever see from a running back — he should feature in any pass game.”

Many point to Harris’ lack of high-end speed as a potential kryptonite at the next level. While being faster is always preferred to being slower: Harris has exhibited the sort of ridiculous tackle-breaking chops to warrant his status as the No. 1 RB off the board. The man is a walking, talking bell-cow back who has the sort of receiving ability to make a mockery out of full point-per-reception formats.

Ultimately, Harris graded out as one of PFF’s best overall RBs in 2018 (No. 5), 2019 (No. 11) and 2020 (No. 12) alike. He was second in yards after contact and missed tackles forced as a senior — it’s clear that the 23-year-old talent is a load to get to the ground. Throw in the reality that Harris dropped just three of his career 83 catchable targets, and we have a prospect that many considered the rookie RB1 before the draft for a reason.

Of course, few are debating whether or not Harris has the skills to thrive in the NFL. The larger argument is actually whether or not this Steelers offense can still enable a high-end fantasy RB.

People might be overreacting to the Steelers offensive woes

The first thing to note about the Steelers is that they’ve historically leaned on a single running back. Le'Veon Bell (25.6 touches per start), DeAngelo Williams (22.8), James Conner (20.8), Jaylen Samuels (18) and, hell, even Stevan Ridley (17) were absolutely fed the ball from 2014-2018. Ben Roethlisberger threw his RBs at least 100 targets during the latter three years of that stretch — there haven’t been many more fantasy-friendly roles than working as the Steelers undisputed RB1 over the years. Even if Big Ben is as washed as some would like to think; that would seemingly only increase Harris’ potential touch ceiling considering the likelihood of more rush attempts and check-downs.

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