After effectively sitting out his rookie season, running back Damien Harris broke out in a big way last year. As one of the few bright spots on the 2020 New England Patriots, the Alabama product seems to have a strong grip on the starting job heading into 2021. Can Damien Harris overcome New England’s historical committee approach and be a late-round steal in fantasy football?
2021 Fantasy Football Outlook: Damien Harris
After starting the season on the injured reserve, Damien Harris made his debut in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs. With Sony Michel sidelined with an injury of his own, Harris immediately took control of the backfield and never looked back. Starting and appearing in 10 games, the running back finished his season with 137 attempts for 691 yards and two touchdowns while adding an additional five receptions for 52 yards.
From a pure talent perspective, Harris looked like the best pure runner on the roster by a wide margin. The former third-round pick had the size and speed to break tackles at will, and his 90.3 PFF grade was second in the league to Derrick Henry’s 91.8.
— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2020
Harris led New England running backs in touches per game, but he never dominated the snap count. The second-year pro only had two games with a 55% snap share and spent most of his time in the mid-30’s to low-40’s. This relative disparity between snaps and touches is because he rarely played on passing downs. Throughout the season, Harris never recorded more than two targets in a single game. Generally speaking, if he was on the field, New England was going to run the ball.
By all accounts, Damien Harris is the locked-and-loaded starter for the New England Patriots. While Sony Michel played well last year, all reports indicate that Harris will be the starter, while Michel and rookie Rhomandre Stevenson fight for opportunities behind him.
Ehhhh, I'm not sure there. Damien Harris is clearly the RB1. In New England, that doesn't mean the same thing as, say, Carolina or Dallas. But Harris isn't losing that job to Sony Michel or Rhamondre Stevenson. They'll be fighting for RB3 (after James White). https://t.co/mEW4AooiEB
— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) July 16, 2021
As mentioned above, being the New England RB1 isn’t necessarily a recipe for fantasy success. The Patriots are still going to rotate their backs, and James White is still going to see the majority of the targets. Chances are, Harris is going to see about 50% of the total carries, with the rest going to Michel, Stevenson, White, and Brandon Bolden. Harris should be pretty efficient with the touches he does receive, as he is a great runner and New England has arguably the best offensive line in football.
Harris isn’t going to be a part of the passing game, which means his ceiling is going to be determined by his touchdown total. That’s not a good thing when your quarterback is Cam Newton. The Patriots loved using Newton as a battering ram last year, as the first-year Patriot finished the season with 12 rushing touchdowns. Considering how infrequently New England was actually in the red zone, this total is pretty staggering.
Mac Jones will eventually take over for Cam Newton, but that probably won’t happen until Week 5 at the earliest. Even when Jones is starting, Harris probably won’t be scoring THAT many touchdowns. New England’s offense should be better than it was a season ago, but it’s still not going to be great. The receivers still leave a lot to be desired, and Mac Jones is a giant question mark. Maybe this can be an average offensive unit, but it’s hard to imagine a world where this is a high-scoring team.
Damien Harris Fantasy Football Projection
Ultimately, Damien Harris should be something of a poor mans’ J.K. Dobbins. Like Dobbins, Harris is a great runner that probably won’t get too much work in the passing game. Additionally, as long as Cam Newton is on the field, he’ll probably struggle to find the endzone on a regular basis.
Last year, New England’s running backs averaged just over 21 carries per game. Assuming the offense improves and Cam Newton takes less of the overall carries, this number will probably jump to 23. If Harris receives 50% of the carries, he should finish the year with approximately 200 carries for 980 yards and eight touchdowns.
The biggest issue is easily the targets. Cam Newton doesn’t throw the ball to running backs (unless your name is Christian McCaffrey), and James White will see most of what passing work does exist in this offense. For now, let’s pencil in Harris for 12 receptions for 62 yards on 15 targets – or, in other terms, more targets than LeGarrette Blount ever received in a full season with the Patriots.
These aren’t league-winning numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but Harris doesn’t need to be a league-winner to justify his ADP. According to FantasyData.com, Harris is currently the 30th running back off the board. Harris should be able to outperform this ADP and finish as a borderline top-24 player at the position.
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