The New England Patriots typically have a crowded backfield, and 2020 should be no exception. 2019’s leading rusher, Sony Michel, is officially off the Physically Unable to Perform list and reportedly looked fresh and fast during his first practice. However, 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris probably won’t just go away.
Last year, Michel had clear control of the early-down work while Harris played just five snaps all season. However, Harris has reportedly played well in Michel’s absence, so this could be a true battle for the starting job. Who will come out on top, and what can Patriots fans expect from this backfield?
New England Patriots Camp Battles: Sony Michel vs Damien Harris
The Case For Sony Michel
Despite his first-round draft pedigree, Sony Michel is not a special talent. That said, you don’t need to be a special talent to thrive behind this offensive line. The interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason might just be the best in the league, and Michel is capable of following his blocks and picking up what’s provided.
Said blocking lanes weren’t around last year, and Michel struggled to efficiently move the ball on the ground. However, that didn’t stop Bill Belichick from letting Michel lead the team in carries by a wide margin. Michel recorded 247 carries on the season, 180 more than the next-best player on the team (James White, 67). Damien Harris, meanwhile, recorded just four carries as a rookie.
Continuity could matter more than ever in this shortened offseason, and that could give the edge to Michel. He has two years of experience in this offense, and he’s exactly as good as his blocking. The interior offensive line should be better with a healthy David Andrews, and Michel could serve as a solid proven commodity at the position.
The Case For Damien Harris
As previously mentioned, Damien Harris hardly saw the field as a rookie. However, that is hardly a kiss of death to his promise for the future. Historically speaking, Bill Belichick usually keeps his rookie backs on the bench before increasing their workload in Year 2.
James White and Shane Vereen recorded a combined 29 touches during their rookie campaigns, while early-down thumper Stevan Ridley saw 90 carries in 2011. The only exception to this rule is Michel himself, but that only happened because Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead suffered serious injuries.
Harris definitely looked the part of an NFL runner during his time at Alabama, and early reports out of camp imply that he’s ready for a bigger role this year. According to beat reporters and team members alike, Harris is an “explosive” runner that might actually be able to make yards of his own. While Michel serves as a known commodity, Harris is more of a wild card that has the raw potential to steal the job by the end of the season.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots using just one of Michel and Harris. Chances are, the two will share early-down work fairly evenly. Running backs coach Ivan Fears essentially confirmed this when he said that “combining [Harris] with the other SEC runner that we have in Sony, [gives you] a hell of a pack there.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Patriots have split early-down work. While the Patriots typically use one guy for carrying the ball, they haven’t shied away from using two runners when they have two capable backs. In 2013, Stevan Ridley finished the season with 178 carries, while LeGarrette Blount had 153 carries.
Expect a similar split for the 2020 Patriots. Michel and Harris should handle all of the early-down work, with Rex Burkhead occasionally coming on as a change-of-pace back. The passing work, meanwhile, will almost assuredly go to White and Burkhead. The only way Michel or Harris see targets is if they’re better pass-catchers than White or Burkhead, and it’s hard to see that happening.