Pittsburgh Steelers fantasy football profile is a series that evaluates prominent players at each skill position prior to your draft. Last week, we touched on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This week, we move forward to the running back position.
Whether you're new to the fantasy football landscape or as old as the introduction of the points per reception rule itself, you've surely heard the wise old tale of how running backs are the most important asset to winning week in and week out. Sure, you're capable of adopting the infamous zero RB strategy and solely focus on other positions in the early rounds of your draft.
However, most fantasy football analysts would advise against that, and with yours truly winning the last three of four championships in my personal fantasy league, I indeed have to side with them as well. Breaking news: Running backs matter, at least on the virtual gridiron of fantasy football.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, for the better part of the last decade, have been somewhat of a staple in terms of producing valuable ball carriers. Ranging from Le'Veon Bell's rookie year in 2013 to James Conner stepping into the spotlight in 2018 and every fantasy-relevant back between (shout out to DeAngelo Williams and LeGarrette Blount), the Steelers have done quite the job of staying in the conversation of fantasy draft boards across the country on a yearly basis.
Turning the Tide
2020 saw a myriad of wrong turns for the Steelers' offense, specifically in the rushing department. The Steelers ranked 32nd in the league in rushing offense (84.4 yards per game), and despite ranking near the bottom of the league in rushing attempts (373), they tied for ninth in the league for fumbles (7) during the regular season.
Translation: No bueno, amigos.
So, what has been done to help turn the tide? Aside from the awesome foreshadowing we just witnessed, the Steelers indeed cleaned house from nearly all parties responsible for their failure to promptly establish the run in 2020.
This includes the dismissal of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, along with a mixture of retirements/releases that saw the Steelers move on from three of five starters on the offensive line. Pittsburgh will also look to correct the insane amount of passes attempted last season in an effort to properly balance their offense.
Additions such as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Matt Canada and day two draft picks in the likes of tight end Pat Freiermuth and center Kendrick Green are other hopeful pieces to fix the Steelers' rushing puzzle.
The most hyped addition of the offseason, however, comes in the form of a shiny new toy and former Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris. Harris, taken with pick number 24 in the 2021 NFL Draft, is expected to make an immediate impact for the black and gold upon his arrival.
Judging the fantasy value of a running back in a new situation is a tough task as is, let alone a rookie who has yet to take a snap on an NFL field. Harris' decorated career at Alabama featured school records broken, such as total career touchdowns (57), rushing yards (3,843) while averaging 6.0 yards per carry, all while proving his worth in the passing game as well.
Will History Repeat Itself?
Nervous about drafting a rookie running back? The question marks surrounding a newcomer are completely reasonable. However, looking at the last five rookie running backs taken as the top in their respective NFL Draft classes, the track record doesn't necessarily cause one to shy away.
*Important note: ADP stands for Average Draft Position, as in what pick players were being selected, gathered by various expert consensus rankings. Scoring and final ranking finishes used with PPR scoring*
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: ADP of 28 heading into rookie season, ranking as RB14. CEH finished with 140 fantasy points through 13 games, finishing as RB22.
Josh Jacobs: ADP of 45 heading into rookie season, originally ranked as RB21. Jacobs finished with 191.6 fantasy points through 13 games, finishing as RB21.
Saquon Barkley: ADP of 6 heading into rookie season, originally ranked as RB5. Barkley finished with 385.8 fantasy points through 16 games, finishing as RB1.
Leonard Fournette: ADP of 16 heading into rookie season, originally ranked as RB12. Fournette finished with 230.2 fantasy points through 13 games, finishing as RB9.
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP of 7 heading into rookie season, originally ranked as RB4. Elliot finished with 325.4 fantasy points through 15 games, finishing as RB2.
Of course, each player encounters different situations and thus can't ultimately be lumped together. However, recent trends have shown that should a running be the first of his position off the board, there's probable cause to believe in him.
Opportunity is Key
We've established what the Steelers have done to improve their rushing attack in 2021, as Pittsburgh (on paper, at least) looks to have sold themselves as a team capable of running the football this upcoming season.
Yet, what will Harris' opportunities look like? Despite the presence of Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, Harris has built himself as the ultimate three-down back, and should find himself on the field for a good majority of plays regardless of the situation. While Snell may threaten to spell Harris in certain short-yardage scenarios, Harris looks to undoubtedly have the keys to RB1 duties in Pittsburgh, with no speed bumps in the foreseeable future to take away opportunities.
Even with lead back James Conner only starting 11 games last season, Snell's 25% and McFarland's 8% of offensive snaps played in 2020 (along with the Steelers using their first pick on Harris) further prove Pittsburgh's willingness to let one running back handle the majority of the load rather than taking the committee approach.
Harris will also be helpful in the passing game as a running back, a position quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has used greatly since entering the twilight of his career. Since Conner first took over starting duties in 2018, Roethlisberger has averaged 57 targets per season to his top available running back during that stretch.
Harris, who caught 43 of 53 targets thrown to him in his senior season at Alabama, looks to continue the trend and fully blossom into a productive PPR machine.
What the Experts Think
"Running backs are at their prime when they enter the NFL, which makes them the most valuable their rookie season, unlike quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends," said FantasyPros' expert Mike Tagliere.
"Because of that, Harris, who takes over as the Steelers' lead back, is someone you want to have on your roster. The Steelers are a team that hasn't been shy about giving running backs 18-plus touches per game with Mike Tomlin at the helm. You don't draft a three-down back like Harris in the first round and put him in some timeshare. I wouldn't be surprised to see him average 20-plus touches per game, which puts him smack dab in the middle of the RB1 conversation."
Final Thoughts on Najee
Entering 2021, Harris currently has an ADP of 38 per FantasyPros, going towards the end of the third round in ten-person fantasy leagues, ranking as RB16 heading into this season. In his current ranking, Harris sits one spot behind Kansas City's Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and one spot above Philadelphia's Miles Sanders.
Should the Steelers' offensive line return to average and their new play-caller also do the same, Harris' situation is one to really like. He's capable of doing damage through both air and ground, establishing himself as a multi-trick pony that can run through, around, and sometimes over you. With little competition to penetrate touches and the likelihood of the Steelers returning to a more balanced offense in 2021, Harris' near fourth-round ADP can pay huge dividends if all goes expected for everyone involved in 2021.
As for the Others...
To come full circle on the article's headline, what about the other backs in Pittsburgh's running back stable? Benny Snell certainly showed some promise, while many believe the speed of Anthony McFarland could shine in a more creative offense such as Canada's.
Handcuffing running backs is a popular strategy when drafting, and should you find yourself with Harris on your squad, it's not necessarily a bad idea to take a look at another Steelers back late in the draft.
As of now, the two backs behind Harris are currently seen as shown:
Benny Snell ADP in PPR formats: 187, RB65
Anthony McFarland ADP in PPR formats: 235, RB75
So, both didn't garner rave reviews. Both running backs are essentially going undrafted, unless you find yourselves playing alongside a die-hard Steelers fan who insists on having the complete roster.
Yet if you're set on drafting either/or, Snell offers the most upside with Harris still in play. Snell has reached the end zone six times during his tenure with the Steelers, and his yardage from touchdowns can be found listed below from longest to shortest distance:
4, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1.
Case in point, if Snell is able to do anything, he's able to reach the goal line in short-yardage scenarios.
If you're drafting McFarland over Snell, that is more likely to prepare you for a future where Harris isn't in the lineup, as McFarland projects as the better three-down back in Pittsburgh's new offense, thanks to his "home run hitting abilities" in space. In the three games that saw McFarland reach four attempts or more last season, he averaged 4.71 yards per carry between those contests.
A small sample size? Absolutely. However, McFarland has shown he just might be capable of moving the chains if given somewhat of an opportunity.
It's unlikely you'll find either of the two running backs gone in your fantasy drafts, at any point. Yet if you're keen on handcuffing Najee Harris, carefully weigh the two scenarios discussed and move from there.
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