The New England Patriots could shake up their backfield in 2020. Last year, the Patriots used a third-round pick on Alabama running back Damien Harris. However, despite the relatively high draft capital, Harris struggled to see the field behind 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel. Michel and Harris have similar skill sets, and Michel was clearly the top guy last year. However, with a full year of experience under his belt, could Harris earn a larger role in the backfield?
Before we get too far, let’s acknowledge that both players will make the roster next year. Barring injury or something completely unforeseen, these two and James White are locks to make the Week 1 roster. Instead of predicting two players battling for one roster spot, this article exists to project who will earn the majority of the early-down touches in the upcoming season.
New England Patriots Roster Battles: Sony Michel vs Damien Harris
The Case for Sony Michel
Sony Michel is coming off a rough season, and some may be hoping for a new face in the backfield to rejuvenate the rushing attack. Michel had a disappointing 2019, there’s no denying that. The former first-round pick averaged just 3.7 yards-per-carry while making a marginal impact in the passing game. However, a deeper dive shows that there is reason to believe Michel can improve moving forward.
The Patriots entered the season with what was supposed to be one of the best offensive lines in the league. However, the team lost David Andrews prior to the season and Isaiah Wynn after just two games. As if that wasn’t enough, Michel also lost fullbacks James Develin and Jakob Johnson early in the season. All of a sudden, the blocking became pedestrian and Michel struggled to overcome his unfavorable surroundings.
Like most running backs, Sony Michel is only as good as the blocking in front of him. The good news is that Michel has proven to be a capable runner if he has above-average rushing lanes. New England’s offensive line improved during the end of the season, and Sony’s performance notably improved. Michel averaged over four yards-per-carry in six of New England’s final seven games, including the playoffs. This isn’t a small-sample fluke, as Michel proved to be a competent runner during his rookie season.
Additionally, there is a chance Michel could see some work in the passing game. The Georgia product is actually one of the better pass-protecting running backs in the league, but he struggled to see the field on passing downs. If Michel can develop a rapport with Jarrett Stidham and add some more explosiveness, he could turn into a solid three-down back.
The Case for Damien Harris
Sony Michel is something of a known commodity, while Damien Harris possesses the excitement of the unknown. Harris spent the final year of his collegiate tenure splitting snaps with 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs. While Jacobs ended up being the first running back selected, Harris actually outproduced his collegiate teammate. During his final collegiate season, Harris recorded 876 yards and nine touchdowns on 150 attempts, good for 5.8 yards-per-carry. Jacobs, meanwhile, recorded just 640 yards and 11 touchdowns on 120 carries (5.3 yards-per-carry).
This isn’t to say Harris will be better than Jacobs, but it shows he has the raw skills to make it in the NFL. Harris hardly saw the field as a rookie, but Bill Belichick historically prefers to ease rookies into playing time. Now that he has a full season of NFL experience, he should be ready for a larger role.
Ultimately, the Patriots should roll into the season with Sony Michel and Damien Harris splitting carries atop the depth chart. New England can save roughly $1 million in cap space by moving on from Rex Burkhead, and they could use every penny they can get. In 2013, the Patriots essentially split carries evenly with Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount. Look for New England to copy that strategy in 2020 and wait for one player to usurp the other.
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