Damien Harris Outlook: What Do Patriots Have In Young Running Back?

Damien Harris has been a Patriots training camp star

by Doug Kyed

Aug 26, 2020

Fortunes can change quickly in the NFL — just ask Damien Harris.

One year after the Patriots running back was buried on the depth chart and redshirted as a rookie, Harris looks primed to be New England’s top big back, at least to start the 2020 season.

Sony Michel and Lamar Miller still are on the physically unable to perform list, Brandon Bolden took the COVID-19 opt-out and James White, Rex Burkhead and J.J. Taylor are best served as pass-catching or change-of-pace backs.

That would leave Harris to carry the load on early downs until he gets some competition from Michel and Miller.

Patriots fans clamored for Harris to get a shot at providing an upgrade at the running back position to no avail. Michel carried the ball 247 times for 912 yards with seven touchdowns and 3.7 yards per carry. The 2018 first-round pick still didn’t emerge as much of a pass-catcher either with 12 receptions for 94 yards with three drops.

The Patriots mixed White (67 carries, 263 yards, one touchdown), Burkhead (65 carries, 302 yards, three touchdowns) and Bolden (15 carries, 68 yards, three touchdowns) into the running game but mostly left Harris at home despite one impressive preseason performance (14 carries, 80 yards; four catches, 23 yards) that lingered in the minds of his biggest supporters.

There are a couple of redshirt running back success stories in New England’s program through the years. White and Shane Vereen both were hardly used as rookies then went on to become offensive mainstays and Super Bowl heroes.

So, don’t hold Harris’ rookie season against him.

The fact of the matter is that no one knows what to expect out of the Alabama product. He’s running hard and decisively in training camp, and his carries have garnered vocal approval from coaches on the practice field. He’s also shown soft hands and a willingness to pass block.

Here’s what we know for sure about Harris, however:

At 5-foot-10, 216 pounds, Harris ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash (47th percentile) with a 37-inch vertical leap (80th percentile), 10-feet, 1-inch broad jump (69th percentile) and 16 bench press reps of 225 pounds (24th percentile) at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.

He averaged 6.4 yards per carry during his time at Alabama, which is a program record for players with at least 400 carries — not bad, considering his successors. His best seasons came in 2016 and 2017 before he took a step back in his senior season with Tua Tagovailoa running more of a pass-heavy attack.

Harris didn’t shine in one particular advanced stat in 2018, ranking 49th among qualified running backs in Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating, 36th in breakaway percentage, 23rd in yards per route run, 52nd in drop rate, 45th in pass-blocking efficiency and 49th in percent of runs not tackled on first contact.

Harris didn’t fumble as a junior or senior, and he offers a complete complement of skills as a runner, receiver and blocker.

To directly compare the Patriots’ last two drafted running backs, Michel averaged 3.8 yards after contact per carry with 38 forced missed tackles on 157 rushing attempts in 2017, per PFF. Harris averaged 3.2 yards after contact per carry with 22 forced missed tackles on 149 rushing attempts in 2018 and 4.8 yards after contact per carry with 33 forced missed tackles on 135 rushing attempts in 2017.

If the Patriots can awaken that 2017 version of Harris, then he could wind up being better than Michel, who has struggled to consistently run with power and elusiveness after a litany of injuries in the pros.

Until Harris gets on the field in Week 1, he’s a mostly unproven commodity. He’s not being tackled in training camp, he won’t play a preseason game this summer, and he has two pro preseason performances and two regular-season games under his belt. Only time will tell if he can provide an upgrade over Michel, but the job appears to be his for now.

Thumbnail photo via Jan 7, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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