Najee Harris

Poll: Which Rookie Running Back Will Finish With Most Rushing Yards?

Quarterbacks, per usual, dominated this year’s pre-draft coverage. The Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history, and four wide receivers then went off the board in the top 20. Running backs, as they have done in a few drafts over the past decade, waited.

While two went in Round 1, the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne pick preceded a 60-pick stretch during which just one running back — the Broncos’ Javonte Williams choice — went off the board. The 2021 draft matches 2016 and 2003 for the fewest backs chosen in the top 80 (three) in the common draft era (1967-present), continuing a grim era for this once-storied position. But several of this year’s draftees have quick paths to key roles.

Linked to Najee Harris ahead of the draft, the Steelers took the Alabama standout at No. 24. Harris will join a Steelers team that ranked last in rushing in 2020. Although the Alabama product scored 30 touchdowns in his senior season and topped 1,200 rushing yards in two straight years, he will now play behind an offensive line that went through considerable turnover this offseason. The Steelers lost 17 Pro Bowls on their offensive line this year. They will replace Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva with far less experienced players, and David DeCastro‘s replacement (Trai Turner) struggled in 2020. Will Harris’ talent be enough to overcome significant O-line concerns in Pittsburgh?

Etienne joins a Jags team that just saw James Robinson set the rookie UDFA record for scrimmage yards (1,414) despite missing two games in 2020. Jacksonville also signed Carlos Hyde, who played for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Etienne spent time at receiver during the Jags’ offseason program but should be expected to contribute heavily in the backfield. Like Harris, Etienne stayed in college for four years. He twice surpassed 1,600 rushing yards and totaled 78 college TDs — most of which coming alongside No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence — but will this unusual setup (for a first-round back, that is) translate to rookie-year production?

The Broncos traded up four spots for Williams in Round 2, Pro Football Focus’ top-rated back in this class, and chose the North Carolina product 36th overall. Williams teamed with Jets draftee Michael Carter to form one of the nation’s top backfield tandems. Williams compiled just one 1,000-yard season with the Tar Heels but led Division I-FBS with 75 broken tackles in 2020. The Broncos have Melvin Gordon signed through 2021, but the John Elway-era addition does not appear to be a lock to hold off Williams for the starting role.

The rest of the rookie field includes third-rounder Trey Sermon (49ers), Carter (fourth round, Jets) and a host of backs ticketed for early-career backup roles. While injuries certainly will hit the running back position, potentially forcing some of the later-round picks into the fray, Sermon and Carter have the best bets of seeing steady action among the mid- and late-round selections.

An Oklahoma and Ohio State product, Sermon also played four years. He averaged more than seven yards per carry in each of his past two, though he never topped 1,000 on the ground. Lead 49ers back Raheem Mostert is coming off an injury-marred season. The Jets added Tevin Coleman, who joined Mostert in missing most of last season, but do not have another back with much experience. This could allow Carter (two 1,000-yard years at North Carolina) early upward mobility, despite his 5-foot-8 frame.

Which rookie back will rush for the most yards in 2021? Who are the later-round candidates or UDFAs who can join these players as early contributors? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers Sign First-Round Pick Najee Harris

The Steelers have their guy. Pittsburgh has officially signed first-round pick running back Najee Harris to his rookie contract, the team announced Tuesday.

It’ll be a four-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $13.1MM for the 24th overall pick. Harris will collect a signing bonus of $6.85MM. Harris to the Steelers was one of the most buzzed about connections leading up to the draft, and the rumors turned out to be accurate. He was the first running back off the board, taken one pick before Clemson’s Travis Etienne.

Pittsburgh was widely expected to draft a runner early, as they’ve emphasized the need for a revamped ground game after they got nothing from their rushing attack in 2020. They let James Conner walk in free agency, and opted for the former Alabama star to replace him.

Harris will slot in as the team’s immediate starter, and the Steelers are reportedly planning on having him play a big role as a pass-catcher. The California native rushed for a ridiculous 26 touchdowns last season, and averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry in all four of his college seasons.

He’ll now be lining up behind and next to Ben Roethlisberger, at least for one season. Harris has the talent to be a top back in the league, the question now is how the Steelers’ new-look offensive line will perform.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers Select Alabama RB Najee Harris At No. 24

The Steelers have been connected to first-round running backs throughout the pre-draft process, and everyone’s inkling proved to be correct. With the No. 24 pick, Pittsburgh selected Alabama running back Najee Harris.

Initially buried on the depth chart, the Alabama product broke out as a junior in 2019 with an average of 5.9 yards per tote. Then, he passed on the draft to turn in an even more impressive 2020 season. Harris helped the Tide capture yet another National Championship while racking up 1,466 yards on the ground with similar efficiency (5.8 ypc). Those totals, coupled with 43 grabs for 425 yards and 30 total touchdowns, positioned Harris as one of the strongest prospects in the ’21 class.

Harris was connected to a number of RB-needy squads throughout the pre-draft process. While the prospect may lack the explosiveness of the NFL’s top running backs, he’s a dependable back who can contribute in every aspect of the offense. Those skills should allow Harris to see the field immediately for his new team. This is especially true in Pittsburgh, as the team lost top running back James Conner earlier this offseason. Harris will likely take the veteran’s place atop the depth chart, with Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, and Kalen Ballage serving as potential backups.

With this selection, Alabama has tied the 2004 Miami squad for most first-round picks in a single draft. Alabama’s count currently sits at six: Harris, WR Jaylen Waddle (No. 6, Dolphins), CB Patrick Surtain II (No. 9, Broncos), WR DeVonta Smith (No. 10, Eagles), QB Mac Jones (No. 15, Patriots), and OL Alex Leatherwood (No. 17, Raiders).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers Eyeing Zaven Collins, Najee Harris?

The Steelers are keeping their fingers crossed for linebacker Zaven Collins and running back Najee Harris, according to a source who spoke with Mike Florio of PFT. However, according to many prognosticators, both players are likely to be off the board by the time the Steelers make their pick at No. 24 overall.

[RELATED: “Doubtful” Steelers Will Trade Up From No. 24]

Earlier this week, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert threw cold water on the notion that the Steelers will trade up from their original first-round choice. Of course, things can always change, especially if the Steelers are truly locked in on Harris and Collins.

Harris is widely regarded as the best running back in this year’s draft. Initially buried on the depth chart, the Alabama product emerged as a junior with an average of 5.9 yards per tote. Then, he passed on the draft to turn in an even more impressive 2020 season. Harris helped the Tide capture yet another National Championship while racking up 1,466 yards on the ground with similar efficiency (5.8 ypc). Those totals, coupled with 43 grabs for 425 yards and 30 total touchdowns, positioned Harris as one of the strongest prospects in the ’21 class.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, both Harris and Collins have caught the attention of the Cardinals at No. 16. Collins, a Tulsa product, has been lauded for his versatility. In just eight games last year, Collins managed four sacks, 54 total stops, and 7.5 tackles for loss. With the ability to play as a pass rusher or pure linebacker, he’s been quietly moving up boards in recent weeks. On Thursday, we’ll find out if he’s out of the Steelers’ reach.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Dolphins Doing Extensive Work On Draft’s Top RBs

The Dolphins’ running back depth chart may look different after the draft’s early rounds. They are doing considerable homework on this year’s top prospects.

Armed with the No. 18 overall pick and two second-round selections, the Dolphins have spent “significant” time talking to Najee Harris (Alabama), Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes. Members of Miami’s coaching staff and front office have also held multiple Zoom meetings with Travis Etienne (Clemson) and Javonte Williams (North Carolina).

In addition to virtual meetings with Harris, Jackson adds the Dolphins spent extensive time with the former Crimson Tide starter at the Senior Bowl. The prep the Dolphins are doing at this position has reached the point where it would surprise if they do not exit the second round with a starter-caliber back, Jackson adds.

The Dolphins hold the Nos. 36 and 50 picks in Round 2. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah does not expect a running back to go in the first round this year, but it would certainly be possible all three are gone by No. 50. Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay’s latest ESPN mock draft has all three gone by No. 36, potentially putting the Dolphins on the trade-up radar.

Miami was connected to running backs last year but elected to fill the position with veterans. Neither the Jordan Howard nor Matt Breida additions moved the needle much, with former seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin operating as the Fins’ top back for most of 2020. Gaskin and longtime Rams backup Malcolm Brown are now Miami’s top two backs. They figure to be joined by a rookie, perhaps a high-end talent, after the draft.

Etienne was considered perhaps last year’s top prospect, but the Clemson back made the rare (for running backs) decision to return for his senior season. His yards-per-carry figure dropped from 7.8 to 5.4 last year. Etienne, however, has two 1,600-yard seasons and 70 career rushing TDs on his resume. Harris dominated in the COVID-19-altered 2020 season, totaling 1,891 scrimmage yards and 30 TDs last season to help the Crimson Tide win another national title. One of two Tar Heels backs who will be drafted, Williams forced 76 missed tackles on just 127 carries. Dolphins backs’ 19 broken tackles ranked 30th in the NFL last season, per Pro Football Focus.

The Dolphins have not used a first- or second-round pick on a running back in 10 years (Daniel Thomas, Round 2), and teams like the Steelers and Bills are on the radar to draft a top back in the first round. GM Chris Grier has not been shy about trading or acquiring picks, so it will be interesting to see if the Dolphins move into better position to acquire one of the top backs next week.

Alabama’s Devonta Smith, Najee Harris Pass Medical Checks

Two of Alabama’s brightest stars got good news on Wednesday. Running back Najee Harris’ ankle checked out well with “no concerns,” according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport (on Twitter). Meanwhile, wide receiver Devonta Smith’s dislocated finger is said to be healing fine, despite his torn ligaments. 

[RELATED: NFL Teams Expect Falcons To Draft Kyle Pitts?]

Harris is viewed as one of the best running backs in this year’s class. Teams have been keeping tabs on his recovery, but his ankle shouldn’t affect his stock, according to sources who spoke with RapSheet. Harris, a skilled pass-catcher, set Alabama records with 57 total touchdowns, 3,843 rushing yards, and 46 rushing TDs. His pass-catching ability is a major plus, though teams are equally intrigued by his combination of power and elusiveness.

Smith, meanwhile, is viewed as one of the three best wide receivers in this year’s class — somewhere behind Ja’Marr Chase and neck-and-neck with teammate Jaylen Waddle. While Waddle is known for his high-end speed, Smith has drawn rave reviews for his soft hands and ability to win 50/50 balls. His finger shouldn’t cause any long term issues, so it’d be a surprise to see him slip outside of the top ten.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Raiders Cut Down To 53-Man Roster

The Raiders were among the teams to drag their feet on announcing their 53-man roster. Now that we can see their initial roster in full, we have to say that they’re looking a little thin at linebacker. Here’s the full rundown of their moves:

Waived:

Released:

Waived/Injured

Waived/NFI:

Minor NFL Transactions: 5/8/17

Monday’s minor moves from around the NFL:

Green Bay Packers

  • Signed: LB Josh Letuligasenoa, CB Raysean Pringle, RB William Stanback, LB David Talley, S Aaron Taylor (via Jason Wilde of ESPN, on Twitter)
  • Cut: WR Antwan Goodley, LS Taybor Pepper

Kansas City Chiefs

New Orleans Saints

Oakland Raiders

  • Signed: DE Chris Casher, LB Najee Harris, LB LaTroy Lewis
  • Cut: S Ahmad Thomas, DL Jordan Wade (Twitter link via Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal)

San Francisco 49ers

  • Signed: S Chanceller James, WR BJ Johnson, OL Richard Levy
  • Cut: OL Bret Treadway

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Cut: CB Greg Mabin

Minor NFL Transactions: 5/7/17

Here are today’s minor moves:

  • The Raiders saw enough from two tryout defenders over the weekend to extend offers. Former Tennessee defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis and ex-Wagner College linebacker Najee Harris will sign with the team, Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports (Twitter links). Both agreed to three-year deals, although they will obviously have uphill battles due to the circumstances of their respective signings. Lewis played both defensive end and tackle with the Volunteers.
  • The Jets announced that they’ve signed tryout offensive linemen Benjamin Braden and Chris Bordelon. In order to create roster space, New York has waived offensive lineman Donald Hawkins and long snapper Zach Triner. Braden appeared in 38 games during his career at Michigan, while Bordelon was a 12-game starter for Nicholls State in 2016. Hawkins, meanwhile, played in seven contests for Carolina last season, but finished out the year with Gang Green.

Earlier updates:

  • The Ravens have released RB Stephen Houston, per Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun (via Twitter).
  • The Panthers signed their entire draft class several days ago, and now they are working on filling out their 90-man roster. As Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk reports, Carolina has signed LB Kyle Kragen (whose father, Greg Kragen, was a member of the Panthers’ 1995 expansion team), LB Alex Bazzie, and DT Gabriel Mass.