Sixty-three players appeared in at least one game for the New England Patriots last season. Just one of them (fill-in kicker Kai Forbath) played fewer snaps than running back Damien Harris.
Harris, a 2019 third-round draft pick, was a ghost during his first year in Foxboro, Mass., logging just five total offensive snaps and five more on special teams. Despite being largely healthy and available, the former Alabama star was limited to two garbage-time appearances as a rookie. His final stats: four carries, 12 yards, no catches.
Expect that to change in Year 2.
Harris has impressed thus far in Patriots training camp, and all signs point to him taking on a much larger role as an NFL sophomore.
“Well, he had a lot of opportunity to work as the scout team running back (last season) and do the things that those players did, whether it be in the running game or the passing game,” Belichick said before Wednesday’s practice.
“He’s a smart player, and he has a lot of skills that I think we’ll be able to utilize. He’s had an opportunity to get quite a few reps here in the work that we’ve done to this point, so I think that’s helped him, but he seems like he’s in good shape and ready to go. Looking forward to seeing him.”
With 2018/’19 lead back Sony Michel (foot) and veteran newcomer Lamar Miller (knee) both on the active/physically unable to perform list and unable to practice, opportunities have been plentiful for the young Harris. He’s stood out positively as both a runner (he felled rookie linebacker Josh Uche with a lethal jump cut Tuesday) and a pass-catcher (he hauled in a juggling one-handed touchdown catch late in Tuesday’s practice).
Harris also has worked as an upback on the Patriots’ kick return team. Having no role on special teams contributed to his lack of playing time a season ago.
“That’s what I think is most important, coming in and showing that I can be dependable, I can be competitive, I can play the game at a high level,” Harris said Tuesday. “Just want to come in here and improve every single day no matter what is asked of me, no matter what coaches need me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Harris averaged 6.4 yards per carry at Alabama and performed well in limited preseason action last summer, rushing 16 times for 88 yards (5.5 per carry) in two games.
With Michel and Miller sidelined and Brandon Bolden opting out of the season, Harris has been one of just four running backs taking reps in Patriots camp, along with James White, Rex Burkhead and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor.
Belichick didn’t offer any indication of when Miller, a talented dual-threat back who surpassed 870 yards in five consecutive campaigns before missing last season with a torn ACL, might be ready to make his Patriots practice debut.
“Of course, you know Lamar missed the season last year and is coming off last year’s injury, so we’ll see how that goes,” Belichick said. “But hopefully he’ll be able to work his way back onto the field, and we’ll see where he’s at.”
Michel’s injury reportedly could sideline him into the regular season.