Denver Broncos: Making a case for Najee Harris with top pick

Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Draft option Najee Harris. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Broncos 2021 NFL Draft option Najee Harris. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos are in an interesting position at the running back position heading into the 2021 offseason.

This is George Paton‘s team now, so we don’t know exactly what his philosophy in terms of prioritizing certain position groups through free agency and the NFL Draft will be.

What we do know is that there is a very large portion of NFL fandom that hates the idea of drafting running backs early on with an absolute passion. In recent history, the NFL has at least somewhat reflected this sentiment toward the position.

Since 2011, there have been just 14 running backs selected in the first round, including zero first-round selections in the 2013 and 2014 classes.

Running backs take a pounding, there is no doubt about it, but the game has evolved to the point that running backs have needed to evolve as well. Selecting running backs high has not proven to be the magic missing ingredient to Super Bowl contention.

The last time a team used a first-round selection on the running back position and then won the Super Bowl after making that selection was the Pittsburgh Steelers after they used a first-round pick on Rashard Mendenhall in 2008. They beat the Cardinals in the Super Bowl that season. Mendenhall played virtually no part in the Steelers’ 2008 Super Bowl win, but he was their top player on offense in the 2010 season when they won the AFC Championship.

Needless to say, the example of Mendenhall is not exactly the model teams should be following because even though first-round running backs have contributed to really good teams, none has won a Super Bowl with the team that drafted them since Mendenhall in 2008.

In the case of first-round running backs, correlation does not necessarily equal causation, either. Drafting a running back in the first round does not mean your team is destined to lose the Super Bowl or fail in other ways. Is it the best use of your most valuable draft assets to select a running back in the first round?

Not always, but to say not ever is highly debatable.

Every draft selection has to have the right context and fit, regardless of the position. First-round picks should be the best combination of talent, ability to contribute early and often, character, and positional value.

The higher the selection in the first round, the less likely your true best option is going to be a player at the running back position. Some positions have more longevity than others in the NFL, which has to be taken into consideration when you look at running backs.

For the Denver Broncos, the days leading up to free agency do not paint the idea of a first-round running back in the best light. The Broncos have plenty of needs elsewhere on the roster, but as I have already discussed this offseason, running back is low key becoming an area the Denver Broncos will have to address sooner than later.

With Phillip Lindsay slated for restricted free agency, Melvin Gordon’s 2021 status in question because of a DUI, and Royce Freeman entering a contract year, there is no question that the running back spot in Denver is questionable at best right now.

Although George Paton was not the final authority in Minnesota, the best teams he and Rick Spielman put together had stellar running back play from Adrian Peterson (a former high first-round pick) and Dalvin Cook, a projected first-rounder who fell to the second round with some off-field concerns in the pre-draft process.

In Pat Shurmur’s first year with the New York Giants as their head coach (2018) he and general manager Dave Gettleman decided to take running back Saquon Barkley over the field of players after Baker Mayfield went first overall.

Taking Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft — especially if the Broncos are able to trade down — should not be discounted as a legitimate possibility for the Denver Broncos.

There are other options in the top 40 picks (Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, Michael Carter) but Harris is a unique breed of player at the running back position.

Although he’s built more like a linebacker at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Harris’ game is not about being a bruiser between the tackles. He excels in getting outside the tackles and using his vision and short-area quickness and burst to create in space.

Where Harris is really head-and-shoulders above others in this class of prospects at running backs is as a receiver. Harris can legitimately line up out wide and play receiver positions and he did as much at Alabama.

This was an area of his game that evolved tremendously over the past two seasons and is a big reason why he should be considered with a first-round selection.

Although they are not entirely similar, Harris could be used at the NFL level in a similar way to that of Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers.

One of the popular comparisons for Harris at the NFL level is that of Matt Forte, one of the best running backs in the league from the day he was drafted in 2008 whose combination of physicality, athleticism, and pass-catching ability made him one of the most dynamic threats out of the backfield in the NFL.

At the next level, I view Harris as a guy who could rack up 2,000 yards from scrimmage on an annual basis if he is featured in the offense. He has the type of vision, instincts, and combination of athleticism and physicality to be one of the best backs in the NFL.

If you had a chance with your first-round pick to draft a guy who has the chance to be one of the best at his position in the NFL early on, you would certainly have to keep that in the mix of options regardless of the positional value.

I’m not saying you should be drafting kickers or punters in the first round because they could be the best in the NFL at their position, but if the Denver Broncos are able to trade down from the 9th pick into the teens, they should be seriously considering a guy like Najee Harris to add to their offensive weaponry. He could be a game-changer on a team that doesn’t have long-term clarity at the running back position.