Damien Harris didn’t get a lot of cracks at trying to crack the Patriots running back rotation in 2019.
The rookie’s limited workload wasn’t necessarily a reflection on his performance in practice, where playing time is earned, but rather the club’s stacked depth chart at the position.
In addition, the corps enjoyed relatively good health throughout the season. Of the top three on the depth chart, only Rex Burkhead missed time (three games) because of injury. Sony Michel played every game and James White missed just one for the birth of his child.
Harris’s selection in the third round of last year’s draft was a bit of a surprise after New England invested a first-rounder in Michel a year earlier. Harris, the top back on several analysts’ boards, was simply too talented to pass up — he holds the Alabama record at 6.4 yards per carry — and the Patriots’ decision to build depth could pay off this summer.
An opening for Harris to burst through could be available come training camp with Michel recovering from May foot surgery, according to an ESPN report. It’s unknown whether Michel, who has a history of knee woes, will be ready or at full strength when training camp begins late next month.
Harris had just four carries during the regular season, in mop-up duty in an October blowout win over the Jets, his highlight a 13-yard catch on which he showed the quick first step and power running that were his hallmarks in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
A solidly built 5 feet 11 inches and 213 pounds, Harris looks the part of bell-cow back (not unlike Michel), and his punishing running style — he’ll pop right through ill-prepared defenders — would fit nicely in any offense. However, there are other elements of his game that could make him a big hit in Josh McDaniels’s schemes.
Similar to White and Burkhead, Harris has a well-rounded game and receiver-quality hands. He has experience catching the ball out of the backfield and as a route runner, particularly out of the slot. Harris caught 52 passes for 407 yards during his time at Alabama.
For a better snapshot of what Harris can do, take his performance in New England’s exhibition win over the Titans last summer. After a week of joint practices in which the starters took the bulk of the snaps, the backups shined in the game, and Harris spearheaded New England’s offense.
Harris collected 103 yards from scrimmage, including 80 yards on 14 carries and another 23 on four catches.
He ran with authority, showing good vision as he followed his blocks and nifty jump cuts as he slashed through the Tennessee defense. He also lined up wide and took some safety-valve passes from Jarrett Stidham as the two rookies developed a chemistry that continued throughout the season.
With Stidham poised to lead the offense this season, the pair’s familiarity — plus a year in the offense under their belts — could prove beneficial as the Patriots proceed into the post-Tom Brady era.
There’s a chance that Michel, who led the Patriots in rushing the last two seasons, could be ready when camp commences, and that will just ratchet up the competition among this group.
When healthy, Michel is a jackknife, slashing back with good vision and instincts. Instability along the offensive line and the loss of fullback James Develin adversely affected his performance at times in 2019, and he never earned Brady’s trust as a receiver.
White has developed into one of the most valuable backs in the league, accounting for 32 touchdowns in his six seasons. He has 320 catches for 2,809 yards plus 274 rushes for 1,119 yards. White is in the final year of his contract, and an in-season extension would not be a surprise.
When healthy, Burkhead has been an effective dual threat. In 31 games over three seasons, he has rushed for 752 yards and collected 664 through the air.
A camp wild card could be J.J. Taylor, the undrafted rookie from Arizona. Small (5-6) but sturdy (185 pounds), he could develop into a threat as a runner, receiver, and returner.
Taylor has nice change-of-direction ability and effortlessly bounces outside when holes are readily apparent. He runs low, avoids big hits, and can deflect defenders. He catches the ball in stride and shows a nice second gear in the open field.
The lack of minicamps and OTAs, plus a possibly condensed training camp, could limit Taylor’s chances, but his track record shows he’ll likely make the most of them.