It might say something about how the running back position is perceived in 2021 that we are faced with a very strong class of runners and don’t hear much about them.
Two of the running backs at the top of the depth chart have been two of the most consistently productive players in college football, and yet have been left out of the first rounds of many mock drafts. Only a couple years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a player with the pedigree of Alabama’s Najee Harris wouldn’t be getting significant first round buzz. After all, he has plenty of highlight plays, is consistently productive (averaging 6 yards per carry over the last four years), and has been a central figure on one of the very best teams in the country — earning a pair of National Championship rings in the process.
And yet Harris, or any of the other top runners, rarely seem to figure in the national conversation regarding first round skill position players.
Prospect: Najee Harris
Games Played: 51
Yards (YPC): 3,843 (6.0 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 781 (9.9 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 57 (46 rushing, 11 receiving)
Games Played: 13
Yards (YPC): 1,466 (5.8 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 425 (9.8 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 27 (23 rushing, 4 receiving)
Best: Size, play strength, vision, competitive toughness
Worst: Balance, pass protection, wear and tear
Projection: A starting running back in an outside zone scheme
Alabama running back Najee Harris is a strong and experienced runner with a good blend of vision and athleticism for the NFL.
Harris has been Alabama’s primary running back over the last two seasons, handling a wide variety of duties in the Crimson Tide’s pro-influenced spread offense. He has taken snaps both behind the quarterback and beside him in the shotgun formation, running well from both alignments. Harris runs with very good discipline and tempo behind the line of scrimmage, following his blockers and giving them time to establish their blocks before pressing the line of scrimmage. Once at the hole, however, Harris shows a good burst to stress defenders, disrupt their timing, and run through arm tackles.
Harris is a very good outside zone runner, with enough speed to gain the edge and vision to track defenders at multiple levels. He understands the blocking scheme well enough to anticipate holes and cutback lanes, and does a good job of seeing them as they develop. Harris has enough agility and lateral quickness to hit holes in outside zone plays as they develop, transitioning from running East-West to North-South. From there, he has enough long speed to break off chunk yardage, and enough play strength and contact balance to withstand glancing blows from would-be tacklers.
Harris is a capable receiving back in a check-down role. He appears to have soft hands on both toss plays as well as true passing plays. He adjusts to the ball well and extends his arms to present a good target for his quarterback and plucks the ball out of the air with his hands.
That being said, Harris is an unpolished route runner, with quick breaks appearing clunky. He was also largely limited to catching passes in the flat or swing passes behind the line of scrimmage. His ability to run a more complete route tree is unknown. Likewise, Harris needs development as a pass protector. He understands his blocking assignments, but can appear a bit tentative in attacking defenders, as well as inconsistent in his technique and leverage.
Balance and contact balance also appear to be issues with Harris. He is a tall (6-foot-1 ⅞ inches) runner, and runs like it. Harris doesn’t lower his center of gravity much while running, playing fairly upright and with a narrow base. There were multiple occasions on the tape viewed when Harris lost his footing attempting to cut sharply absent any contact. And while he is able to run through light contact and weather glancing blows, Harris was brought down relatively easily by most square hits to his hips and thighs.
Overall Grade: 8.5 - This prospect is a fringe first-round talent with the upside to be a good all-around starter with some slight limitations.
Harris projects as a starting running back for any team which runs primarily zone blocking schemes. He has the ability to run out of pretty much any blocking scheme, but zone schemes play best to his skill set.
Harris is, primarily, a one-cut runner with great vision and enough athleticism to act on that vision. He’s a big back with enough play strength to run through light contact — arm tackles and glancing blows. So, it just makes sense to put him in position to face smaller defenders as often as possible. Harris is certainly capable of being an inside power runner, but his issues with contact balance make him less effective running through traffic than one would expect based on his size.
He does show upside as a receiver, with big soft hands and solid ball skills at the catch point. Harris does a good job of presenting a target, locating the ball, and snatching it out of the air, which bodes well for his development as a receiving weapon. However, he will need to work on his route running at the NFL level, both on his mechanics as well as expanding his route tree. Likewise, Harris will need to improve his blocking to earn coaches’ trust to stay on the field on obvious passing downs. Scat protection should remain an option with him, but there will come times when he is needed to pass protect, and if he is a liability, he won’t be on the field.
Teams will also have to assess whether or not they should put Harris in a backfield rotation. He has the potential to be an every-down back, but he also played a very high number of snaps at Alabama. Harris had a total of 718 touches in college, the vast majority of which came in the last two seasons.