As we've all heard, the running back position has become devalued in the NFL draft. There are still occasionally players who are drafted really early, as Saquon Barkley was selected second overall in 2018, Leonard Fournette went fourth in 2017 and Ezekiel Elliott also went fourth in 2016. But in the past two drafts, just two ball-carriers came off the board on the first day, and neither was close to the top 10.
Those first-rounders made an impact. Josh Jacobs went for 1,150 yards in 2019 with the Raiders, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire paced the AFC champion Chiefs in rushing in 2020, piling up 1,100 total yards in 13 games.
There are a few running backs in this class who appear capable of making a similar early impact. Javonte Williams of North Carolina is a physical, 220-pound bruiser who racked up 1,140 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Travis Etienne had at least 1,400 total yards and 16 touchdowns the past two seasons at Clemson.
But the top guy in the backfield this year is Alabama's Najee Harris, a 6'2", 230-pounder who is a punishing runner, dangerous receiver and capable blocker. And the team that drafts him could be getting the best prospect at the position since Barkley.
Harris surprised some pundits by electing to return to Tuscaloosa after amassing 1,224 rushing yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and scoring 20 total touchdowns as a junior in 2019. As it turned out, he was only getting started, as he rolled for 1,466 yards and a staggering 26 rushing touchdowns in helping lead the undefeated Crimson Tide to the national championship.
Harris also showed marked improvement as a receiver last year, hauling in 43 passes for 425 yards and four more scores. He was named a unanimous All-American and the winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.
Given the incredible success that he enjoyed last year, it's no surprise that some have drawn comparisons between him and NFL rushing king Derrick Henry, who won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2015. Harris doesn't have Henry's ridiculous combination of power and size, but he's a much better receiver, and according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, at least one former general manager went so far as to call Harris the better prospect.
"You can't say he's going to be as good as Henry, but he's better than Henry coming out of college," the former GM said. "Besides the power, he looks like he has the speed. It's not three yards and a cloud of dust. To me, he would be a great pick."
Dan Orlovsky of ESPN didn't go so far as to compare Harris to the two-time defending rushing king, but he did say that he sees a lot of a 10-year NFL veteran who topped 1,400 total yards six times and made two Pro Bowls in Harris' game.
"He reminds me a lot of Matt Forte," Orlovsky said, per AJ Spurr of Roll Tide Wire. "First of all, I think that they both run with grace yet power, but also the second-level vision that they have. It's like that Spidey sense where they see the flow of the defense, and then they have the ability to cut back. And then their pass-catching ability; this isn't just guys that are, you know, we could check it down to them, but we could use them as weapons throwing them the football. So, I love them both with similar running styles, but also the reality of how good they are [as] a first-, second- and third-down pass-catching threat."
There isn't much that Harris can't do at a high level. While running between the tackles, he displays excellent vision in spotting holes, burst in exploding through those holes and power to run through arm tackles. He has more than enough speed to hurt defenses around the edges, as he's run a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and a 3.7-second 20-yard shuttle. He's not the best pass-catcher in this class, but his improvement in that area in 2020 showed that he can be a factor on all three downs. He was also mostly solid in pass protection, which can be a rarity among rookies.
Harris isn't perfect. His blocking and route running could both use refinement. But that's true of even the best prospects at running back just about every year.
As good as Williams was for the Tar Heels in 2020, he doesn't have the collegiate resume Harris does. Etienne is a superior receiver, but he had ball-security issues at Clemson. Per Jordan Reid of The Draft Network, Harris lost just one fumble in two years as a starter for the Crimson Tide.
There isn't a better back in the class. Period.
As talented as Harris is, he'll likely be selected in the back half in Round 1 at the earliest. However, he'd then get to begin his professional career on a team that had success in 2020, and there are numerous clubs picking toward the back of Round 1 that could use an upgrade in the backfield.
With James Conner set to hit free agency, the Steelers could be an option. Per Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot, longtime NFL analyst John Clayton said he could see Harris as a fit in the Steel City while appearing on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh:
"I would have to think that they like him. I can't imagine why they wouldn't. Again, you can see the way this league goes now, is you don't necessarily have to get that running back in the first round, and the way the Steelers usually draft, they usually end up taking a linebacker or a defensive player in the first round. But again, knowing the importance of the running game, and knowing that there's [a] change in offensive coordinators, [a] change maybe a little bit in offensive philosophy, I could see Najee being that first-round pick."
It's possible that Harris won't even make it to Pittsburgh at pick No. 24. The Dolphins have a pair of first-round picks (Nos. 3 and 18), a clear need for a featured back and a young quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa who is already stumping for Miami to draft his former Bama teammate.
"He's going to be a fun guy to watch this upcoming season," Tagovailoa said on the Yahoo Sports Podcast, via Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post. "Hopefully, we're on the same team."
If Harris makes it past the Dolphins and Steelers, the Bills (No. 30) could be looking for an upgrade over Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. If he falls outside the first round, Harris won't be waiting long. The Jets and Falcons pick early in Round 2, as do the Dolphins thanks to the pick they got from the Texans in the Laremy Tunsil deal.
There's next to no chance that Harris falls outside the top 40. And judged strictly on talent, he should be a first-rounder. He is equal parts explosive and physical as a runner. He has the pass-catching and blocking skills teams covet in an every-down back. The versatility to shine in any offensive scheme. And he has everything it takes to succeed (and even star) in the NFL.
It would be foolish to bet against him having the kind of rookie success that Jacobs, Edwards-Helaire and even Barkley have enjoyed the past few years.