With Todd Gurley and Brian Hill hitting free agency, the Falcons need for a running back has never been greater, especially with Arthur Smith taking over as head coach. I’ve always been a big supporter of avoiding running backs in the first round, and in the same breathe, never handing them a second contract. However, if the Falcons traded back and picked up several more selections, a case could be made to take Alabama’s star running back, Najee Harris, in the first round.
This is a continuation of our draft profile series that began with LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Be on the lookout for plenty more as we aim to breakdown as many of these prospects as we can before the first round of the draft on April 29th.
Najee Harris surprised most people when he decided to forgo the draft last year and stay for his senior season at Alabama. Along with other star prospects like Devonta Smith, he felt like they had unfinished business, and they didn’t waste their time in their final season with the Crimson Tide. Harris had a slow start to his college career, but he blossomed as a junior and senior, running for over 2,600 yards and catching for over 700 more. He’s an all-around prospect and proved this season that he should be the first running back off the board.
At 6’2″, 230-pounds, Harris is a bruiser that wears defenses down over the course of the game. Nothing showed that better than his National Championship performance against Ohio State, where he consistently bludgeoned the Buckeyes defense until their will was broken. However, for being as big and physical as he is, he also has a fantastic ability to run in space and make defenders miss, just like this:
Najee Harris clocked in at 230 pounds at the Senior Bowl.
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) January 26, 2021
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a 230-pound back do something like that, and he did it several times over his career at Alabama.
And then what the hell was this Najee Harris.. haha So much going on in the game. A lot of high level prospects making high level plays. pic.twitter.com/H22knAu1es
— Crocky (@eric_crocker) January 20, 2021
It’s easy to think about Alabama running backs and Arthur Smith and believe that Najee Harris, in the right situation, will be as successful as Derrick Henry. I don’t think that’s fair to Harris, but I do think he will be a wonderful running back in the NFL, especially in a scheme like Smith’s. The first man rarely brings him down; he’s always falling forward; he has terrific explosiveness and balance for a 230-pound man, and he can make plays in the receiving game. As far as running back prospects go, there isn’t much not to like.
As I just said, there aren’t too many negatives to point out in Harris’ game. Like most backs, he can probably improve in pass protection, which he will be asked to do a lot more of in the pros, but considering his size and willingness to hit defenders, I don’t see that being something he can’t learn and excel that. Harris won’t run the fastest 40-time, but that’s also not his game at his size, and he showed plenty of ability to make big plays in both the run and pass-game at Alabama. Saying anything else negative would be doing him a disservice. Harris is a fantastic draft prospect, and I expect him to be taken in the first round.
Arthur Smith brings with him a wide-zone scheme at his offenses’ root, building off of it through play-action. But it is still a multi-dimensional scheme with gap, and other zone runs included. They ran more zone than gap — the split and inside zone series were extensive — in Tennessee, but that was due to personnel. Expect a combination of these different schemes, but it doesn’t matter which Smith deploys as Najee Harris can run in literally any of them.
Outside zones usually demand patience and vision from running backs as the offensive line moves, gradually picking up defenders as they go side to side instead of north and south. Harris has incredible patience and vision with the burst to find and get through the smallest of openings. The outside zone doesn’t necessarily require ultra-athleticism. Still, you saw what it provides for the offense with someone like King Henry, and Najee is already a better athlete than his Alabama counterpart. He would be an absolute home run of a selection, but in what round would Fontenot value Harris at?