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NFL draft: Is Najee Harris Bama's next great pro runner? Or a bad NFL fit?

Eric Edholm
Najee Harris is set to be Alabama's lead back, but he might not be quite the NFL draft prospect that some of his predecessors have been. (Getty Images)
Najee Harris is set to be Alabama's lead back, but he might not be quite the NFL draft prospect that some of his predecessors have been. (Getty Images)

There’s a bit of a debate swirling around NFL draft circles about the next running back in line at Alabama.

Following the drafting of Josh Jacobs in Round 1 by the Oakland Raiders and Damien Harris in Round 3 by the New England Patriots, the stage is now set for Najee Harris to take over in the lead role this season for the Crimson Tide.

And history suggests that Harris, a junior, has a great chance of being a Day 1 or 2 draft pick whenever he ends up declaring for the NFL draft.

Certainly it’s no secret that the Crimson Tide are a factory for pro prospects. They’ve produced by far the most NFL draft picks (93) and first-round picks (31) over the past 10 drafts. And running back has been one of the program’s most fruitful positions.

The Tide have had 10 running backs drafted in the past 10 years, with only two falling outside the top 100 selections. One was a fullback (Jalston Fowler, a fourth-rounder of the Tennessee Titans in 2015) and the other was Bo Scarbrough, a seventh-rounder of the Dallas Cowboys in 2018.

In fact, you have to go back to the 2007 college season for the last time Bama’s leading rusher wasn’t someone who would go on to be drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. That’s incredible.

Damien Harris, Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon, Eddie Lacy, Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee all were Bama’s leading rushers from the 2008 season until now, and they all ended up being taken in the first three rounds. Even their backups and understudies tend to get drafted — Jacobs, Scarbrough, Kenyan Drake and Fowler never led the Tide in rushing in college but all were picked.

That suggests that Najee Harris will get a considerable chance in the league whenever it’s his time. But not everyone is convinced that he’s a high-level NFL prospect.

Is Najee Harris a top-shelf NFL draft prospect now?

A tweet from The Athletic’s draft analyst, Dane Brugler, got our minds stirring on this topic. Brugler’s point seems to be that Harris doesn’t fit what the modern NFL back looks like, and there’s some validity to this argument.

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Behind Damien Harris and Jacobs in 2017, Najee Harris ran for 370 yards and three touchdowns on 70 carries, upping his rushing workload to 783 yards and four TDs on 117 carries. On the surface, it’s hard not to like an SEC back averaging 6.1 and 6.7 yards per carry, respectively, in his first two seasons. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Harris battled a foot injury early in the 2018 season and an ankle injury last November.

Harris is a sturdy 230 pounds, built almost like a smaller Henry or Scarbrough. In his first two seasons, Harris has impressed with his power and his patented hurdle maneuver to launch over would-be-tacklers. He was the former No. 1-rated recruit in the country by many services, including Rivals, out of high school.

Harris’ tackle-breaking ability is also impressive. Last season, he averaged 4.38 yards after contact, which is a good number, and his 0.32 missed tackles per carry was third-most among returning backs with 100 carries or more.

Sure, he’ll appeal to the run-game fetishists who love a back who can plow his way through or past a defender. There’s something to be said for that ability, as throwback as it is.

But Harris’ lack of receiving prowess and lateral quickness are big worries in the NFL community. The league has shifted away from power/pounder backs who are not light on their feet and who cannot make significant contributions to the passing game. Harris has a total of 10 catches (on 14 targets) for a mere 52 yards.

Certainly, the pass-game contribution could improve over time. But Scarbrough is a good example of a Nick Saban-coached back who was more of a power-based unitasker who never made big strides in the passing game. That was a big reason why he slipped so far in the draft despite being a bull on the ground at times.

Alabama also adds true freshman Trey Sanders — one of the best recruits in the SEC — to the mix this season and returns junior Brian Robinson at the position. Sanders comes into the program with sky-high goals and immense confidence right out of the chute.

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At this point, it would not be a stretch to say that Sanders is by far the better receiving threat of the top two backs. We’ve heard his open-field ability at 6-foot and 200-plus pounds is something to behold. Sanders’ high school tape is tremendous.

How Harris can improve his draft stock

It’s notable that Najee Harris carved out such a strong share of the run game last season — only three fewer carries than Jacobs and 33 fewer than Damien Harris. But some around the program felt that part of that workload was dished to Najee Harris after he hinted at transferring after his freshman season. It’s not that the Bama coaches dislike Harris at all, of course, but it’s clear that he has some limitations and would be best served in more of a complementary role.

How that translates to his NFL profile remains to be seen. Harris could keep Sanders’ role limited with a strong 2019 season and become the next Bama back to keep the top-100 pick streak alive. That’s certainly in the realm of possibility, and declaring after this season would make a lot of sense from a tread and value perspective. In other words, sticking around for his senior season — barring an injury or something unforeseen — wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

But don’t be stunned to see Harris end up as more of a Day 2 or early Day 3 prospect than as a Day 1 pick. He doesn’t have the versatility of their first-rounders such as Jacobs or Ingram or even Richardson, who was considered a far more explosive prospect when he ended up the third overall pick before busting out of the NFL.

Harris ran a 4.66 40-yard dash in high school and might not test vastly better at the NFL scouting combine. His college tape also shows a player who might not register all that high in the agility drills, such as the 3-cone drill or the 20-yard shuttle. And those measurements (along with the 10-yard split on the 40) are metrics that a lot of NFL teams lean on when scaling RB prospects.

It’s Bama, of course, so we’re talking about an explosive offense — especially through the air now — with grade-A talent at almost every position. No longer can opponents gang up on the Alabama run game the way they used to. Harris appears poised for a strong statistical season as the 1A run-game option, and he has the frame to withstand the beating of an elongated season, one that could see Bama in the SEC title game and College Football Playoff once more.

The schedule is also quite friendly prior to that with the Tide dodging Georgia and Florida in the regular season and having a non-conference slate of Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina. Like QB Tua Tagovailoa last season, Harris might be wearing a baseball cap for most fourth quarters, too.

But as an NFL darling? We’re not convinced Najee Harris is yet that player, and he might never be.

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