Position value aside, running back discourse often comes down to what an evaluator believes is the idealized version of a running back. For some, a primary running back should be a home run hitter whose deficiencies are outweighed by his explosive ability; for others, a lead back should be a stabilizing force in all facets of the game who helps unlock other areas of the offense. Alabama’s Najee Harris, a candidate for the best running back prospect of 2021, falls into the latter category.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris has perfect size to be a lead back who eats the bulk of a team’s touches. There has been some criticism cast his way for not emerging as such for Alabama until his junior season in 2019, but seeing as he was sharing reps with a first-round back in Josh Jacobs, that is hardly a fair criticism. Once Harris stepped into the starting role, he proved himself as dangerous as any Alabama running back before him. Between 2019 and 2020, Harris carried the ball 460 times for 2,690 yards (5.85 yards per carry) and a stunning 39 touchdowns while also hauling in 70 passes for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns.
A core element to Harris’ game is how few losses he takes and how well he squeezes every inch out of each run. Between Harris’ natural feel behind the line of scrimmage, surprising change of direction for a player his size, and power battling through contact, he has every tool necessary to ensure there are always extra yards to be found.
Texas A&M’s defense fits this run up quite well. The defensive end over the bunch set to the top of the screen does a great job standing up tight end Miller Forristall (87) and getting his hands above his eyes to give himself control for a two-way go to either side of the block. The linebacker fitting in behind the defensive end also does well to press the C-gap (outside the tackle) and force Harris to bounce, only committing to flow outside himself when Harris has no other option left. Harris should be corralled here.
Instead, Harris shows off unholy stop-start ability despite being built like a human bulldozer. With some help from Forristall pinning the defensive end outside after he commits that way, Harris is able to bounce around a few times before getting upfield for 3 yards. This is not the kind of run that instantly breaks open a game, but on a second-and-4 run like this, getting to third-and-1 feels a whole lot better than third-and-6. Harris is the kind of runner who constantly “fixes” busted runs like this to salvage something from them.
Once again, this is a solid effort from the defense. LSU’s nose tackle (72) gets some mighty push on Alabama’s center, crashing him into the right guard trying to pull around. Not only does this force Harris to remain at depth for longer than he wants to, but the puller (65) gets caught in the trash and can’t get in front of Harris to take out the linebacker. That is no issue for Harris, though, not even against future Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Patrick Queen (8). Harris shrugs Queen off like a junior varsity scrub, powers forward for another 6 yards, then fights through a defender hanging onto his ankles for another yard or two. Some of this play can be credited to poor tackling technique from Queen, but it is startling how easy Harris bounced him off and immediately recalibrated himself to truck on down the field.
The only clear and fair criticism of Harris as a runner is what he brings to the table in terms of long speed. Harris is not a threat to snap off touchdown runs from anywhere on the field. He has fantastic acceleration through the line of scrimmage, but there is no final gear he can kick into that gives him real breakaway speed. Granted, the rest of Harris’ game is such that he can rip off 10- to 20-yard gains at will, but if a team is looking for the next Chris Johnson, they will not find him with Harris.
This kind of run is a microcosm of what Harris offers. Notre Dame’s edge defender (33) boxes the outside puller (playing the outside shoulder to force the ball inside) while the rest of the squad creates a traffic jam by barreling through the right tackle. Harris finds an angle to bounce the play anyway before making a miraculous hurdle over Notre Dame’s free defender. At this point, Harris has already offered more than most running backs will. It is already a very good play.
As mentioned, however, Harris does not have that extra gear to turn this into a touchdown. Harris has a free runway ahead of him and only needs to beat the safety coming over from the middle of the field, but he cannot quite find the one or two extra steps he needs to beat the angle. Again, this play is wonderful as is and speaks more positives than negatives, but it is true that Harris has a number of these could-be touchdowns that instead just go down as great chunk gains.
Extra-gear concerns aside, Harris has other ways of adding extra elements to an offense. Though he will not be the guy scoring from any distance, he does offer added value as a pass-catcher. Harris can take quick, easy throws out of the backfield just the same as he can threaten down the seam or down the sideline on wheel routes. While Harris is not the type to split out as a wide receiver very effectively, everything he offers as a pass-catcher out of the backfield is top notch.
The simplest trait for a pass-catching running back is having speed to the flat and being able to create yards after the catch. This is more of a baseline trait than anything, but it is worth showing off how comfortably Harris checks the box. Harris can outrun just about any linebacker to the flat, bring in the ball smoothly, and rely on his creative, explosive short-area ability to generate yards after the catch. Whether it is a stutter-step like in the first clip or stopping dead in his tracks for a spin move like in the second clip, it feels as if Harris always has a trick up his sleeve in these spots and is more than athletic enough to execute them.
What is tougher is catching a back-shoulder wheel route with the grace and soft hands of a Pro Bowl wide receiver. Only a handful of lead backs in the NFL have this kind of coordination, both in terms of being able to turn and flip their hips with ease as well as the ability to locate the ball in the air at its highest point. Having a running back who can run any number of short routes out of the backfield is one thing, but having a running back who can effectively be a vertical threat is a game-changing dimension for an offense.
Finally, Harris is an adequate pass-blocker. Putting him in the prime Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell category would be a bridge too far, but Harris is strong and willing, and he understands protection assignments well. That is a stronger baseline than most college running backs enter the league with. Harris could use some work in not coming into his blocks so high at times, but it is ultimately not a detrimental flaw.
Protecting opposite a full slide is not easy on a running back. They have to come across the formation from an awkward angle against an edge rusher who gets time to set up a pass-rush move in space against them. In this clip, Harris covers ground across the formation in a hurry while still remaining square and tight to the line of scrimmage. Even if Harris’ assignment here is the edge defender, it is a pass-protector’s first priority to cut off the fastest path to the quarterback, which means not giving up any inside path to the quarterback. Harris neutralizes any potential path inside before meeting the pass-rusher out wide and giving him just enough trouble for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to find his man over the middle. This is not highlight-level pass-blocking where the defender ends up on his backside, but it is this kind of sound play that will keep Harris on the field on passing downs.
Harris checks just about every box you could come up with for a running back prospect. Size, production, vision, explosiveness, third-down ability, and so on and so forth. He is the ultimate piece to help raise the floor of what an offense is capable of. Harris’ explosive, reliable rushing style can help assure the offense stays in favorable down-and-distance situations, while his third-down ability helps create run/pass ambiguity since whichever team drafts him will not need a designated passing-down back.
Running back value is an exhausted topic, but Harris is good enough that it should come as no surprise if he comes off the board in the mid- to late first round. There will be teams that put a lot of value on his ability to fill in the holes for an offense and raise its floor, especially teams who already have elite playmakers elsewhere.