When it comes to ranking players going into a new NFL season, it’s always tricky where to place rookies among those who have already gained professional experience. While some rookies will come out of nowhere to surprise the league, much like James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020, you’ll also get others who are extremely hyped that don’t live up to those expectations. I’ll never forget a book my brother received in 1988 which listed Danny Manning among the top 100 basketball players of all time as he was coming out of Kansas and getting ready to start his professional career. It’s not that his career wasn’t solid, but I don’t think it ended up as a top 100 status.
Keeping this in mind, Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently listed their top 32 running backs for the 2021 NFL season. What is tricky is where to put rookies on this list compared to those who have already done the job.
It seems like I can’t write an article about PFF without giving the typical disclaimer of how their projections can be highly questionable. Even their grading of players after the fact can be picked apart, so expecting them to do well in the prediction business is not something which I’m ready to bet the farm on based on their conclusions.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I can get on with talk about Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris. Despite the fact PFF despises drafting running backs in the first round, and still isn’t very high on it in Round 2, Harris landed as their No. 20 running back in the NFL going into 2021.
Before getting into the comparisons with other players, here was the breakdown on Harris given by PFF:
Ranking rookies is always a tough ask without any real knowledge of how they will perform at the next level. Harris is a complete back who can be a force in the passing game as well as on the ground, and he could get a huge workload as the Steelers look to justify their pick and rejuvenate their run game. Harris averaged 3.7 yards after contact per carry in college.
As expected, Harris ranked at the top among NFL rookies as Travis Ettiene was number 23 and Javonte Williams number 24. Where things get interesting is how these players landed compared to other NFL veterans.
PFF continued their love affair with the Cleveland Browns by placing both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in the Top 10. While it is difficult to argue against Chubb landing in the Top 5, Hunt is also a solid running back even if Top 10 is pushing it. Another AFC opponent landed above Harris in Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals ranked at No. 14.
What may be the biggest surprise is the run-first Baltimore Ravens did not have a player appear on the list until No. 26, even after the 2021 rookies. J.K. Dobbins appeared in 15 games for the Ravens in 2020 after being selected in the second round of last year‘s draft. With 134 carries for 805 yards at nine touchdowns, Dobbins’ 6.0 yards per attempt still landed him behind the players drafted in 2021.
Even though PFF chose to go with 32 players, it does not mean all 32 teams were represented. In fact, they were a number of teams who placed two running backs on the list such as the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Denver Broncos. Interesting enough, Najee Harris is the only rookie running back on this list who did not also have another player from his team make the top 32. Even though both Etienne and Williams made the list, neither was the highest player ranked from their team.
Of course, rankings before the season is played is really nothing more than projecting expectations. With the Steelers landing a running back in the top 32 and now means they are expected to have an improved running game in 2021 if nothing else. But after coming in last in the league in both yards and yards per carry, the Steelers really don’t have anywhere to go but up.