Shortly after New England drafted Damien Harris in the third round last Friday, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio paid the Alabama running back a simple yet meaningful compliment.
“He falls into the ‘good football player’ category,” Caserio said in his post-draft news conference at Gillette Stadium.
After studying close to a dozen of Harris’ collegiate games for our draft pick film review series, we agree with that assessment.
Though teammate Josh Jacobs went considerably higher in this year’s draft (24th overall to the Oakland Raiders), Harris was the more productive back in college, tallying 1,004, 1,000 and 876 rushing yards in his three seasons as a starter for the Crimson Tide. He scored 22 touchdowns during that span — including 11 as a junior in 2017 and nine as a senior — and his 6.45 career yards-per-carry average ranks third in SEC history behind only Bo Jackson and Derrius Guice.
Harris accumulated those impressive stats by running with a blend of vision, burst, power, decisiveness and balance that made him difficult for individual defenders to bring down.
Take this play from last year’s season opener against Louisville. After receiving an inside handoff from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Harris identifies a crease in the defense, takes one jab step just behind the line of scrimmage, darts through the hole and takes off downfield, running through multiple arm tackles en route to a 32-yard gain.
Here’s another example from the 2018 SEC championship. Harris utilizes the same subtle jab step to slice through Georgia’s defense.
And another from last year’s matchup with Texas A&M. Notice the way Harris is able to not only remain on his feet but also keep those feet churning after taking the initial hit.
And one more from his 2017 demolition of Vanderbilt, during which he carried 12 times for 151 yards and three touchdowns.
Harris isn’t a particularly elusive runner — he ranked near the bottom of this year’s draft class in forced missed tackle percentage, according to Pro Football Focus — but he excels at maximizing his yardage on each play. He propels himself forward through defenders and often requires gang tackles to bring him down.
Speed-wise, Harris ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which ranked in the middle of the pack among running backs. He’s not a burner, but he does have the wheels to turn open lanes on the outside — which Alabama’s excellent offensive line frequently opened for him — into big gains.
Here’s one such play against Ole Miss:
And another against A&M:
Harris wasn’t a prolific pass-catcher for Nick Saban’s squad, finishing his college career with 52 receptions in 56 games, including 22 for 209 yards and no touchdowns as a senior. In that way, he’s similar to Patriots 2018 first-round draft pick Sony Michel, who posted gaudy rushing stats but only modest receiving totals (64 catches in 47 games) at Georgia.
But while Michel failed to make a significant impact in New England’s passing game as a rookie (11 targets, seven catches in 13 games), Harris’ film suggests he has the tools to contribute in that area. On a number of his receptions, he created chunk plays out of swing passes and quick throws to the flat, like this one against Arkansas:
… this one against Ole Miss:
… and this one in the 2018 national title game:
(As seen in that last clip, Alabama brought Harris across the formation in jet motion from time to time, often doing so with both him and Jacobs on the field. Don’t be surprised if you see some of that from the Patriots as Josh McDaniels works out the best way to utilize the varied talents of Harris, Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.)
Bill Belichick also requires his running backs to pass-protect effectively, and though we did see a few hiccups in that area from Harris, he willingly steps in front of blitzers and generally gives his quarterback the time he needs to throw. His blocking technique should improve, too, once he’s exposed to NFL coaching.
It should be noted that Harris’ numbers dipped somewhat in 2018 — after averaging 8-plus yards per carry in seven games as a junior, he did so just twice as a senior, including once against The Citadel — but negative plays were difficult to find on tape from either season.
Overall, he’s a solid, well-rounded back who should push for early playing time, especially if those above him on the depth chart — Burkhead and Michel, in particular — can’t stay healthy.
And even if Harris can’t break his way into the backfield rotation as a rookie, he’ll likely have a role in the kicking game. Despite his starting status, he played on multiple special teams units at Alabama and even blocked a punt during the 2017 season opener.