The New England Patriots have an opening at running back, and second-year pro Damien Harris appears to be the top option for the job. According to multiple Patriots beat reporters, the Alabama product is working with the first-team offense and appears to be the favorite to win the early-down job from Sony Michel.
However, this is just training camp, so it’s easy to get carried away by a fun narrative. At this point last year, we were looking forward to Sony Michel lining up wide and making plays in the passing game. That obviously didn’t work out, and it’s far from an outlier. Training camp is full of lies and unjustified optimism, and it can be hard to find the truth through the camp hype. Let’s take a look at Harris and his current situation to see if he can actually make the leap in his second year.
Is Damien Harris the Real Deal?
The New England Patriots selected Harris in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. At the time, most expected the rookie to battle for the primary backup spot on early downs. That never quite came to fruition, as Harris played in just five offensive snaps all season. He recorded just four carries for 12 yards, all of which coming in the final seconds of a blowout victory over the New York Jets.
At first glance, one could assume that this underwhelming usage means that Harris wasn’t what the Patriots expected. However, historically, New England takes their time to break in their running backs. James White had a combined 14 touches as a rookie, and it’s safe to say his career turned out ok. Shane Vereen, meanwhile, recorded just 15 carries and didn’t see a single target as a rookie. Stevan Ridley saw a bit more work, but he still only recorded 90 touches. The only recent exception to the rule is Michel, and that only happened because Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead missed large chunks of the season with injury.
This is all a long way of saying that Harris’ rookie usage shouldn’t be a concern for his career moving forward. The opportunity is there for Harris to take a big step forward, and his college film suggests he’s up for the job. Back in Alabama, Harris proved that he could be a tough, physical runner between the tackles that falls forward when hit and can find cutback lanes if his initial read isn’t open. While he doesn’t do much for the passing game, he fits the mold as a LeGarrette Blount type of early-down back.
Damien Harris In 2020
Sony Michel is still on the physically unable to perform list, and the signing of Lamar Miller implies that he won’t be ready for the start of the season. Harris has the opportunity to win the early-down role, but does he have what it takes to thrive in the position?
As previously mentioned, Harris’ college film suggests he has the talent required to make it in the NFL. However, rushing production has more to do with scheme and blocking than it does the actual runner. New England’s offensive line should be one of the best in the league, especially along the interior. Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are arguably the best guard duo in the league, and David Andrews is a top-10 center when healthy. Only time can truly tell if he’s back to his old self after suffering blood clots in 2019, but the early signs are promising.
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn looked good when healthy last year, but he is something of a health risk. Right tackle Marcus Cannon opted out, and 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste should be the starter. Cajuste missed his rookie season with an injury, so he’s a complete unknown. However, even with the uncertainty at the tackle positions, this line should be capable of creating lanes for Harris.
Additionally, the team now has quarterback Cam Newton under center. Overall, Newton is a downgrade from Tom Brady. However, his rushing ability could prove advantageous for Harris. It’s no secret that mobile quarterbacks can help improve rushing efficiency, as opposing defenders need to account for the possibility of the quarterback taking off with the ball. Defenses weren’t exactly worried about that with Brady under center.
However, even if Harris wins the starting job, it’s hard to see him becoming a superstar, both in real football and fantasy football. Belichick loves to switch up his running backs, so Rex Burkhead and Miller will see time on early downs. On top of that, Michel will come back at some point and eat into the overall workload.
Additionally, James White remains the best pass-catching back in town, and it’s hard to see Harris usurping White or Burkhead for targets. Assuming Michel isn’t ready for the start of the season, Harris should record around 180 carries for 810 yards, and six touchdowns while seeing maybe 20 targets.
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