Alabama running back Najee Harris bucked a significant trend when he returned to the Crimson Tide for his senior season.
For several years now, running backs facing an uncertain future and limited earning potential in the NFL have been bolting college early as soon as they were relatively certain of being draft.
Harris probably would have been selected if he’d chosen to leave Alabama a year earlier, after posting a 1,224-yards season as a junior.
Instead, he returned and improved, rushing for 1,466 yards s a senior, increasing his receiving yards from 304 to 425 and scoring 30 total touchdowns after crossing the goal line 20 times in 2019.
Backs have been rewarded for their decisions to come out early, with NFL teams appreciating the lower amount of wear and tear on their bodies. But ESPN analyst Todd McShay thinks that Harris improved his stock by taking one more run at college football.
“I was so impressed with the improvement that he made in this past year,” McShay said in a conference on Monday. “You know, he decided to come back, a lot of running backs don’t decide to do that. He came back and in Steve Sarkisian’s offense, he caught the ball a lot better, he was good and pass protection, and the biggest knock I had on him when I studied him in the summer, was that for 235-pound back, he didn’t run like that. He’d kind of dance and always want to bounce things outside. He didn’t do that this past year. He really was more aggressive, was a north-south runner and just wanted to get upfield and utilize his size and his strength. So I think he’s really improved his draft stock. I think he’s solidified himself as a first-rounder.”
In McShay’s last two mock drafts, he has the Steelers taking Harris with the No. 24 overall pick in the first round, a place he thinks is a good fit for the powerful back.
“Pittsburgh would be a great spot,” McShay said. “The Jets, that’s another spot that he could go. I put Travis Etienne from Clemson at 23 for the Jets, but Harris could be the pick there. Tampa Bay could use a running back, as well. So, there are plenty of teams in that like 20 to 32 range where Harris could go but I think he did wonders for his draft stock, if you will, with this past year and just the way he competed and how aggressive he was as a runner.”
The Steelers are looking to replace incumbent starter James Conner, who remains a free agent, and Harris appears to have a similar frame, with more experience in the receiving game coming out of college than Conner did three years ago.
He was also rewarded for his decision to return to Alabama with a national championship win in the 2020 College Football Playoff.