The Spotlight Series
A Footballguys Spotlight is an in-depth look at a player. His plusses and minuses are examined, and we give you our bottom-line stance on his 2022 prospects. If a player listed below doesn't yet have a link, don't worry. It's coming soon.
Last season the Pittsburgh Steelers were led by a 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, who was essentially duct-taped together and severely limited. In 2021, the Steelers offense struggled, ranking 21st in points scored, 23rd in total yards, and 29th in rushing yards. Despite Roethlisberger’s physical limitations, including a bad shoulder that made throwing deep nearly impossible, they threw the ball 664 times (4th most attempts in the league). Despite the atypical (for Pittsburgh) run/pass ratio and a predictable offense that couldn’t stretch the field, rookie tailback Najee Harris was an unbridled workhorse. He led the league with 381 touches, gaining more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage while scoring ten touchdowns.
While Ben Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer and one of the defining faces of Steelers football, the truth is his retirement could bode well for the offense, including Harris – who will assuredly pace the team again.
Does Volume always equal success for fantasy RUNNING BACKS?
The phrase “Volume is king” gets thrown around, but is it true? If so, how much volume does it take to be an elite fantasy running back? That all depends on the definition of elite. For this case, let’s consider Top 5 to be elite.
TABLE: Volume Statistics for the Top 5 Fantasy Running Backs (2019-2021)
A few observations:
- Over the last three seasons, elite running backs averaged 20.4 touches per game.
- Austin Ekeler had the lightest workload in 2019, with 14.0 touches per game, although his high target volume juiced his per-touch value in PPR scoring.
So why do these numbers matter for Najee Harris? Over the years, the Steelers' offense has been known for feeding top running back a lot of touches. In 2021, Najee Harris had the 2nd most rush attempts in the league. Over the previous nine seasons, Pittsburgh’s leading rusher averaged 22.1 touches per game. Last year, Harris embodied that statistic by playing in all 17 games and averaging 22.4 touches per contest. Of those 22.4 touches per game in 2021, 4.3 were receptions. That reception per game average is actually just beneath the nine-year average of 4.4 receptions per game.
In a recent interview on The Pivot Podcast with Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor, and Channing Crowder, Mike Tomlin spoke about his second-year running back and his expectations for him in 2022.
"That dude is a bell cow. He's gonna have to be a bell cow for us, if this train is going anywhere in 2022, he's going to be a major component of it, and he's capable. I ain't even talking about from a talent standpoint. We know that. I'm talking about he's capable from an intangible standpoint. Bringing the best out in his teammates. Wearing the responsibility that comes with leading."
Knowing the track record the Steelers have of feeding the workhorse, it’s safe to expect Harris to match last year's workload if he stays healthy.
Volume IS, in fact, still king. Since 2018, only six running backs have totaled at least 350 touches in a season. This makes a player like Harris extremely rare, and highly valuable.
How much WILL THE NEW QUARTERBACKS impact Harris?
Heading into 2022, there may be concerns that Harris won’t see the same volume because Roethlisberger isn’t there to check down to him multiple times per game. The veteran quarterback targeted running backs at the second-highest rate in the NFL in 2021, at 26%. Will newcomers Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett be as apt to check down to Harris? The fantasy community is concerned.
In 2019, when Trubisky was the starter for the Chicago Bears, the running backs on the roster combined for a 28.9% target share, leading to a 79-reception season for Tarik Cohen. Harris is arguably just as good of a receiver as Cohen and should see far more action as an every-down back. But it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Cohen is a different type of player, and the Bears offense in 2019 could be totally different from the Steelers offense in 2022. Last season, only 14% of Harris’ targets came on designed screens, while he led the NFL with 34 check-down targets.
Najee Harris pass-game work:— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 10, 2022
-Only 14% of his targets came on screens — sixth-lowest mark among 54 qualified RBs
-Najee led NFL with 34 check-down targets
-Tarik had just 24 check-down targets in 2017-2019 combined with Mitch
-Only Kamara had more screen targets during this time
Nearly half of Harris' receiving production came from check-downs by Roethlisberger. On the other hand, Trubisky threw quite a few designed screens to Cohen in Chicago. At this point, there’s no guarantee Harris will have the same number of check-downs or an uptick in designed screens, but one thing is for certain, this will not be the same Roethlisberger-led offense.
Trubisky is likely to open the season as the starter and could potentially hold onto the job for most of the season unless the team falls out of contention. With that in mind, offensive coordinator Matt Canada could implement more run-pass option (RPO) concepts. It’s no secret Canada had to limit his playbook only to plays Roethlisberger wanted. With a more mobile option at quarterback, the playbook can be far more unpredictable, creative, and - if all goes well - explosive.
Trubisky, however, is only part of the equation. What happens if Pickett becomes the starter? It shouldn't necessarily be a problem for Harris' fantasy value.
In a study by Dom Johnson of Dynasty Nerds, he looked back at the last ten years of data to see how rookie quarterbacks affected their team’s starting running back. In his article, Johnson charted 27 running backs over the last ten years and their points per game difference before and during the season with a rookie quarterback. The study found that running backs scored an average of 1.7 fewer PPR points per game with a rookie quarterback.
In an effort to find a silver lining, Johnson mentioned, “The only RBs that seemed to benefit or, at least, come out unscathed were the satellite backs, but that could be more because their points don’t normally come from the ground anyway, which is the aspect of RBs’ games that is stunted the most when they receive a rookie QB.” While Harris is far from a satellite back, he did lead all NFL running backs in receptions and tied for the league lead in running back targets. Essentially, Harris has more than just one way to produce fantasy numbers.
Many factors could come into play if Pickett becomes the starter. Is the team out of playoff contention and playing poorly? Are they trailing, forcing Pickett to throw the ball 40 times per game? How bad is the offensive line, and will Pickett have to check down to the running backs? Suffice to say if Pittsburgh struggles, it'll be harder for Harris to carry the ball as much as he did in 2021. But since he's also one of the most targeted receiving backs, he should be more game-script agnostic than other top-tier fantasy runners.
Regression is imminent… just not the kind that you’re thinking.
Harris was grossly underutilized in the red zone despite his gaudy overall volume.
- 17th in carries from the 5-yard line (11)
- 20th in rushing touchdowns at the goal line (4)
- 22nd in red zone touches (37)
- 17th in red zone rushing touchdowns (6)
Harris got 71% of the team’s rushes inside the 20-yard line (29 attempts), second only to Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis (80%). The difference is Taylor scored 14 times on his opportunities. It would be imprudent to suggest Harris will jump to Taylor’s level, but assuming positive touchdown regression is a far more pragmatic bet to make. And that would allow Harris to sustain top-five value even if his overall workload takes a modest downtick.
Stats and Projections
There aren’t many running backs in the league with Harris's size, guaranteed workload, or pedigree. While there are questions about the Steelers offense in 2021, given the seismic shift in quarterback, Roethlisberger was holding the unit back last year. As long as the offensive line is among the league’s worst (which is a risk), Harris has the versatility to ensure another massive fantasy season regardless of game script.
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