Fantasy Football Debate: Joe Mixon vs. Najee Harris
Joe Mixon and Najee Harris are being drafted as the RB12 and RB13 on Underdog Fantasy. In this debate, Jack Caporuscio explains why he drafts Mixon there while Pranav Rajaram argues for Harris as his preferred rusher.
The Case for Joe Mixon
Jack: Perhaps no running back is more polarizing for fantasy football than the Cincinnati Bengals running back, Joe Mixon. Mixon has consistently been a fantasy heartbreaker, with high hopes and a failure to deliver on those hopes being an evergreen offseason narrative. Worry no longer, fantasy managers, as the year of Mixon is finally upon us (barring injury). Through six games in 2020, Mixon posted 428 rushing yards on 119 rushing attempts (3.5 yards per carry), three rushing TDs, 138 receiving yards on 21 receptions (6.5 yards per reception) and one receiving TD. Before getting hurt in Week 6, Mixon performed as the RB11 in half-PPR formats. Mixon was tied at the time with Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey for the third-most touches per game. Mixon also boasted a 65.54% snap share, meaning he was on the field for the majority of offensive plays. The volume was there, the fantasy points and everything seemed aligned for the Mixon breakout we've long-awaited. Then, disaster struck fantasy managers around the world with yet another Mixon injury. So, why should this year be any different?
Why 2021 (Should) Be Different
The Bengals are going to have a better offensive line than we think. Remember Jonah Williams? The 11th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft played only 10 games in 2020 due to injury. With a fully healthy offseason thus far, Williams should bolster the left side of the offensive line as the left tackle. The Bengals also went out and signed former Vikings' and Lions' left tackle Riley Reiff, who figures to slot in and reinforce the right tackle position. The Bengals spent a second-round draft pick in 2021 on Clemson's Jackson Carman as well. Long story short: the Bengals knew they had issues at the offensive line and did their due diligence in fixing it. The improved offensive line play should open up running lanes for Mixon to take advantage of.
The Bengals also added Louisiana State University's Ja'Marr Chase, adding to the already potent aerial attack of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The improved receiving options should prevent defenses from stacking the box against the run, which should increase Mixon's rushing efficiency metrics. Couple a better offensive unit with the fact that thorn-in-the-side Giovani Bernard is finally no longer a Bengal and Mixon should see more passing volume than previous years. Assuming health, the Mixon fantasy breakout should be all systems go in 2021.
Mixon also serves as a better option than the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers' Najee Harris, who is running behind a decrepit offensive line that should lead to rushing inefficiency as a rookie. While Mixon is currently going as the RB11 and 16.8 overall per Underdog Fantasy ADP (2 spots ahead of RB13 Harris), he serves as the safer and higher upside option at running back in what should be a much-improved Bengals offense. I am drafting Mixon with confidence as a fantasy RB1 in half-PPR formats, but especially in Underdog Fantasy where he should have multiple high-end RB1 performances this season.
The Case for Najee Harris
Pranav: There are a very limited number of rookies that can walk into the season and immediately become the starter at their position. Teams will usually try to phase their rookies into the system, helping them adjust to the steep learning curve present when transitioning from college to the NFL. However, for Steelers running back Najee Harris, this is not the case. The Alabama superstar is stepping into a dream situation for fantasy football as the clear-cut three-down running back in a great offensive system. Given his talents and opportunity, Harris’ current Underdog half-PPR ADP of RB13 could be a lot closer to his floor than his ceiling, and his upside makes him a much better pick than his fellow AFC North running back Joe Mixon.
It’s been said many times before, but I’ll say it again: In fantasy football, volume is king, and that is the primary reason why Harris should be excellent for fantasy this year. He is far and away the best running back in the Pittsburgh backfield. Benny Snell (RB88), Anthony McFarland (RB94), and Kalen Ballage (RB105) are nonfactors for fantasy football, and will only be used to spell Harris from time to time. The Steelers didn’t draft Harris in the first round of the NFL Draft to put him in a committee, so Harris should see plenty of touches.
There is also a historical precedent behind why Harris should presumably be given lots of responsibility early on. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has always liked to employ one bell-cow running back that gets the bulk of the touches out of the backfield. James Conner, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, and Willie Parker all had seasons with at least 20 touches per game as the starting running back for the Steelers. Harris should follow the footsteps of these running backs and will likely be among the top of the NFL in touches this season.
Harris’ pass-catching upside is another factor that makes him an appealing fantasy prospect. On top of rushing for a combined 2,690 yards on the ground over his final two college seasons, Harris put up 70 receptions for 729 yards, proving himself to be a reliable option through the air. With Ben Roethlisberger’s arm looking like it has almost fallen off (average depth of target of just 7.1 last season, which was 28th in the league), Harris should be a beneficiary of many short check-downs, further improving his fantasy value.
To top it all off, Harris could be in line to see some very positive game scripts. The Steelers defense is coming off of a season where they ranked first in FootballOutsiders’ DVOA, and they look to be a formidable force once again. If Pittsburgh is in a lot of slugfests or jump out to early leads because of their defensive prowess, it will lead to Harris being given a boatload of carries to kill the clock and maintain possession. 4for4 currently has Harris projected for 250 carries, but that number could easily hit 300 if things break right.
While Mixon is a good running back and will likely be elite for fantasy in 2021, he has more question marks than Harris does, making him a less enticing option. Most importantly, he has injury concerns–Mixon missed the final 10 games of last season with a foot injury, and per DraftSharks’ Injury Index, has an 83% chance of a serious injury next season. Additionally, unlike Harris, Mixon is on a team with a rather weak defense and could face less beneficial game scripts. He also has to compete for targets with the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. All in all, Harris has the makings of the more dependable running back for fantasy football this season and should be taken over Mixon in drafts.