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Draft Day Decisions: Should You Draft Najee Harris or Joe Mixon?

Which AFC North running back should you target at the end of the first round, Najee Harris or Joe Mixon? Bryan Armetta breaks down the pros and cons for both young stars.

Which AFC North running back should you target at the end of the first round, Najee Harris or Joe Mixon? Bryan Armetta breaks down the pros and cons for both young stars.

When playing in the unpredictable AFC North, one thing is certain: a strong running game goes a long way. The Ravens (third most rush yards in 2021) and Browns (fourth) have designed their offenses around controlling the football and dominating time of possession. However, the same can’t be said of the Bengals and Steelers, who relied more on the passing game than their divisional rivals. 

Counter-intuitively, that pass-first approach helped make Pittsburgh and Cincinnati’s starting running backs quite valuable in PPR fantasy football leagues. Najee Harris finished as the RB3 while Joe Mixon was the RB4. However, it’s difficult to determine who should go first off the board in fantasy drafts given the incredibly narrow gap in production between the two. Let’s dive into why you should, and shouldn’t, bet big on these two projected first-round picks.

The Case For (and Against) Najee Harris

While his efficiency wasn’t great, Harris’ rise to fantasy prominence was the result of Pittsburgh giving their rookie RB plenty of volume. He led all running backs in catches (74) while adding on 1,200 yards on the ground via an NFL-leading 381 touches. Remarkably, there’s even the potential for positive touchdown regression, as Harris found the end zone just 10 times last season. It’s clear that the Steelers want to be a run-first team, which gives Harris one of the highest floors of any top pick. That level of security should have plenty of appeal for managers that believe a draft can’t be won, but can be lost, in round one. 

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There is room for Harris to regress into a “very good” option rather than an elite RB1. During his final NFL season, it became abundantly clear that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength was all but gone, which led to a high dosage of dump-offs when the pocket began to collapse. Harris’ 74 receptions were responsible for nearly 20% of all Steelers passes on a paltry 6.3 yards per catch. Whichever one of Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett starts for Pittsburgh should lean on Najee, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll have the same kind of impact as a safety blanket. With plenty of other weapons to throw to, Harris may have a reduced role on passing downs, even on what should be an improved offense.

The Case For (and Against) Joe Mixon

The Bengals’ offense in 2021 revolved around the passing game, led by the dynamic duo of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. However, Joe Mixon also had the best season of his five-year career, rushing for over 1,200 yards while scoring 16 total touchdowns. He could be in line for even more work this coming season; Cincinnati made some serious upgrades to their porous offensive line by signing Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins this offseason. While those acquisitions might buy more time for Burrow to find Chase down the field, the Bengals QB told reporters last month that he wanted the offense to be less reliant on big plays. If that leads to more running plays, Mixon should find himself firmly in the RB3-RB6 range once again. 

On the other hand, while last season was relatively injury-free for Mixon, he does have a history of missing games. It’s not enough of a concern to avoid him in drafts, but it could make him less appealing to managers that want more of a sure thing at the end of the first round. There’s also the possibility that the Bengals offense sputters slightly now that defenses have a whole offseason to study tape. With more focus on stopping Chase and Burrow, a run-heavier offense might mean fewer touchdowns and fewer receptions (42 last season) for Mixon, even if it comes with an increase in rush yards. His already-high TD total of 16 is almost guaranteed to plummet, so a less-dominant season from his teammates in Cincinnati might take him out of the conversation as a top-tier RB1.

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The Verdict

Harris feels like the more secure fantasy asset than Mixon at this point in their careers; it’s clear that the former is the focus of the Steelers offense, and at just 24 years old he’s got plenty of juice left for next season. Mixon is a bit more of a wildcard; prior to last season, he had never ranked better than ninth in average PPR fantasy points per game. Still, the Bengals offense had finished near the bottom of the league every year prior to 2021. Unlike Harris, who relied on short passes to make himself fantasy-relevant on a bad offense (23rd in total yardage), Mixon was simply a good player in a good situation, and the Bengals should be just as good, if not better, next season.

While both running backs have their fair share of potential, we’ll go with the bigger “boom” player in Mixon. After getting bullied by the Rams in the Super Bowl, the Bengals improved their personnel to run the ball more effectively, and Mixon should benefit greatly. Harris, who had a better season in fantasy than he did in real-life, will see the aging Roethlisberger replaced by one of two young quarterbacks. That likely means fewer short-yardage passes, plays that allowed Harris to separate himself as one of the better backs in fantasy. Mixon isn’t a perfect player by any means, but his supporting cast and individual capabilities make him a slept-on draft target near the end of the first round. It’s a close call, but grabbing a share of this potent Cincy offense could pay major dividends once again.

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