You’ve probably heard about Harris making the 9-hour drive to attend Alabama’s March 23 pro day after his flight out of Dallas got canceled. It’s a nice story, but he wasn’t there to actually work out. We’ll see whether Harris gives us anything at the Crimson Tide’s 2nd pro day, on March 30.
Harris hit the college scene as a highly coveted recruit. Scout.com ranked him #1 overall in the 2017 class, as did Rivals. Harris checked in 2nd overall in 247Sports’ rankings and a lowly 11th nationally in ESPN’s rankings. (ESPN had him 2nd behind Cam Akers among RBs, the only of the 4 outlets to not have Harris #1.)
He topped 2,200 yards rushing in each of his final 3 seasons, racking up 7,783 yards and 98 total TDs over that span. U.S. Army All-American Bowl national recruiting director Erik Richards compared him to Adrian Peterson and Derrick Henry at the time, pointing out that Harris was the best receiver among the 3.
Harris clearly could have gone just about anywhere but committed to Alabama as a sophomore and stuck with it despite taking official visits elsewhere.
He arrived to a Tide offense that already sported Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs in the backfield -- as well as Jalen Hurts behind Center. The true freshman ranked 4th on the team (ahead of Jacobs) with 61 carries.
Harris climbed just to 3rd on the team in rushes as a sophomore, trailing Damien Harris and Jacobs. But his 6.7 yards per rush beat both upperclassmen by at least 0.9. He ran for 143 more yards than Jacobs on 3 fewer carries.
2019 took Jacobs and Damien Harris out of the way, and Najee Harris finally took control. He handled 48.8% of Alabama’s rushing attempts, scored 48.2% of the rushing TDs and racked up 55.5% of the rushing yards. Each of those shares was the largest for an Alabama RB since Derrick Henry’s final season in 2015. Harris’ 7 TD receptions also tied for 3rd on that team, trailing only Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy.
Harris surprised many by returning for his senior season in 2020. He became the 1st Alabama player to reach 200 carries in back-to-back seasons since Kenneth Darby in 2005-06. His 43 receptions were the most by a Bama RB since David Palmer in 1993 (and Palmer was a WR/RB hybrid). Harris led the SEC in rushing attempts, yards and TDs. His 26 TD runs were 2nd most in Tide history, behind only Henry’s 2015. Harris also led the nation in rushing TDs, scrimmage yards and total TDs.
He finished his Alabama career with school records for rushing yards, rushing TDs and total TDs. Harris won the Doak Walker Award (nation’s top RB) for his senior campaign and earned consensus All-American status.
Let’s start with what you probably expect to find from a 230-pound back. Harris is a load to bring down at the 2nd and 3rd levels of a defense.
He’s not likely to rack up a bunch of huge plays in the NFL with pure speed. We probably won’t get a 40 time from Harris before the NFL Draft. He checked in at just 4.66 seconds as a college recruit, though. One Crimson Tide writer reported hearing a 4.45 time for Harris in 2020. Present-day Harris looks faster than 4.66, but I’d still bet he’s closer to 4.60 than to 4.45.
That said, there’s still some pull-away ability -- even through contact.
According to Pro Football Focus, Harris ranked 3rd in the nation last season with 962 yards after contact and 2nd in missed tackles forced (69). Of course, Alabama’s elite offense and blocking helped make sure most of that contact was coming at or beyond the line of scrimmage, rather than in the backfield.
Despite any relative lack of speed, though, Harris isn’t just some big, stiff runner. He has good feet, especially for a 230-pounder.
There’s also the silly athleticism that you’ve probably already seen.
Lots of guys can -- or at least try to -- leap over a defender these days. But how many guys can treat that defender like a track hurdle and remain in stride for a long TD run?
What stands out most about Harris, though -- especially for a guy with his size and running power -- is his receiving ability. First, there’s all the same after-contact ability that he sports on runs.
But Harris isn’t just a dangerous screen option. The guy can flat-out catch the football.
And check out the big guy working downfield …
This is a 3-down back at the next level.
I glossed over the speed question a bit, and that wasn’t by accident. One knock you’ll see on Harris is that he doesn’t have the acceleration or long speed to create big plays to the same degree a faster back such as Travis Etienne might be able to.
Perhaps that limitation shows up at the next level. But the whole point of the “RBs don’t matter” movement among some football analytics folks is that the difference in production has tended to depend more on surrounding factors than player talent.
Even if Harris slots behind a few other backs in his class in pure speed, he certainly sports enough of an all-around talent package to take advantage of this situation. His receiving ability, in particular, sets Harris up as a clear 3-down back at the next level.
Age is certainly another knock on Harris. He just turned 23, which makes him the oldest of the RBs expected to go in this draft. Perhaps that comes into play as a tiebreaker vs. Etienne or Javonte Williams at rookie-draft time. But I can't imagine significantly downgrading Harris because he'll be 27 (or 28) at the end of his 1st contract rather than 26 (or 27). We know that betting heavily on any RB beyond his 1st contract is no longer a great idea.
So the last remaining piece is where he gets drafted and by whom. It’s tough to find a better landing spot than Atlanta at 35th overall (3rd pick of Round 2) for maximizing RB fantasy upside right now. Pittsburgh (24th), Buffalo (30th) or Tampa Bay (32nd) late in Round 1 would present plenty of upside as well.
Wherever he goes, though, expect this workhorse back to sit near the top of our rookie-draft rankings and factor into the 2021 redraft landscape. Harris isn’t a crazy pick at his current RB19 ADP in FFPC best-ball drafting (late in Round 3).