How High Is Najee Harris' Fantasy Football Ceiling in 2022?
A huge part of the battle in fantasy football is simply opportunity. We can clamor all we want for talent to win out and for players to get chances, but if a player isn't on the field, he's not scoring fantasy points. He just literally can't do it. It's not possible!
There's efficiency and scoring rates and other things from there, but making sure our guys are getting snaps and touches is key.
Head coach Mike Tomlin isn't worried about that part either. "That dude is a bell cow," Tomlin said. "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."
All right, so. There's that part of it. Case closed. Draft Najee early and move on, right?
Right, sure, but what's the ceiling here?
After all, Harris handled a league-high 381 touches in 2021 but finished as the RB4, more than 100 half-PPR points behind the top earner, Jonathan Taylor. On a per-game basis, Harris' 13.3 half-PPR points ranked him as the RB8.
If he already led the NFL in chances and was great -- yet not elite -- what's his path to being the RB1? Does it exist? Let's dig in.
Playing on a good offense helps generate fantasy points. It's just common sense. More efficiency means more yardage and more red zone drives which can lead to elevated scoring outputs.
How good can the Steelers' offense be in 2022?
The obvious difference from a year ago is the quarterback situation. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to an overall rank of 26th in offensive efficiency, according to our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Their rushing offense was 21st.
Based on our NEP metrics, Trubisky has generally struggled to be a difference-maker in his career.
In 2017 and 2019, he underperformed the NFL average in Passing NEP per drop back by 0.12 and 0.09 points, respectively, which basically means that -- over 50 drop backs in a game, let's say -- a team led by Trubisky would score six points fewer than what an average offense would.
In 2018 and 2020, though, he did overperform the average by 0.05 and 0.03 points, respectively.
Let's be optimistic and say that the Steelers can be an average offense in 2022 with Trubisky -- assuming he's their guy. Average (or thereabouts) is good enough to bolster an RB1 (i.e. a top-12) performance based on history, so I think it's disingenuous to pretend that Harris -- locked into an elite workload -- can't produce something of note with this offense.
But can he really repeat as a top-five back? Can he be the RB1?
Since 2012, we have (naturally) 50 top-five fantasy running back seasons to examine. Of those 50, more than half (28, or 56.0%) were on a team that finished inside the top 10 in our Adjusted NEP metric. Additionally, 41 (or 82.0%) were on teams 16th or better (so, top half). That's probably a fair ceiling for this offense unless Trubisky or Pickett overperform substantially.
Going back to Harris finishing as a top-five back in 2021 on the 26th-ranked offense, that was the third-worst offense to produce a top-five fantasy back since 2012 (with Todd Gurley in 2015 playing on our worst-ranked offense and Christian McCaffrey in 2019 on a team ranked 28th).
While this doesn't zero-out Harris' chances, especially if the Steelers can flirt with the NFL average, unless you are a firm believer in Pittsburgh sitting inside the top 10 in overall efficiency by year's end, Harris has a taller order ahead of him than some other backs being drafted early.
Harris' Efficiency and the Offensive Line
The larger question, then, becomes whether or not he can turn an average offense into something great by himself.
Harris played to the league-average Rushing NEP per carry in 2021 (0.01) with a subpar rushing success rate (40.4%, compared to the average of 42.8%). By NextGenStats' rushing yards over expected, Harris fell 48 yards shy of expected on his carries last season.
Now, in fairness to him, no back on the Steelers got to expectation.
Benny Snell Jr. finished at a -27 over 36 carries for -0.79 per carry, so we have to take it a little easy on Harris, who did outperform his teammates behind an offensive line that ranked 28th in FootballOutsiders' adjusted line yards and 26th in ProFootballFocus' run-blocking grade.
The problem there: the line shouldn't be that much better in 2022.
ProFootballFocus ranks Pittsburgh's line 30th entering the season.
Looking at that list of top-five backs again, two-thirds (33 in total, or 66.0%) of them played on a team with a top-10 line by adjusted line yards.
In fact, among these top-five performers, only Saquon Barkley in 2018 played on a worse line (29th) by adjusted line yards than Harris did last year (28th).
You can look at things this way: Harris' workload was so good in 2021 that he could finish as a top-five back even in a poor environment, and he is virtually guaranteed a huge workload again so long as he can handle it.
Or you can view it as Harris having an outlier performance in spite of a poor situation, one that isn't looking drastically better. That pessimistic view would indicate that Harris would need a second consecutive outlier performance to be a top-five back again -- even on a great workload.
Najee Harris 2022 Fantasy Football Projection
Is that too high? It's hard to say.
It's incredibly difficult to look at a player with a featured role who is fully expected to have the same role again and ignore the safety it can bring to a lineup provided he stays healthy.
That being said, the offensive situation -- the overall efficiency under Trubisky or Pickett, Harris' own below-average performance, and the expected offensive line play -- point to a low-end RB1 type of environment.
For Harris to be a true game-changing, league-winning, fantasy-point accruing asset, he'll once again need to defy what the historical trends say -- and then some.
He's not a back to cross off because it's impossible to overstate what constant production from a running back can add to a fantasy team. However, a lot has to change for Harris to wind up being fantasy football's top running back in 2022 even if he leads the league in touches once again.