The New England Patriots’ running game had one of its most efficient performances of the season during the team’s loss against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night: the three backs that were used — James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead — combined to see only 17 carries as part of the Patriots’ pass-heavy, up-tempo game plan but they still gained 74 yards on the ground for a very solid average of 4.4 per attempted run.
When looking at the whole season, however, the Patriots are still among the least efficient rushing teams in all of football: their 3.3 yards per carry rank them only 30th in the NFL, while their run-game-DVOA — a statistic created by Football Outsiders to evaluate plays based on the situations in which they occur in — is only the 19th best in football (-9.1%). In short, New England’s ground attack is far from where it was at the end of the 2018 season.
This lack of productivity has numerous roots, with the inconsistency along the offensive line — both in terms of personnel and in terms of performance — as the most prominent one. To blame it all on the line would be wrong, though, as the backs themselves have also had their ups-and-downs. Sony Michel, for example, needs to improve his decision making and become more consistent as a ball carrier according to position coach Ivan Fears.
This all begs the question, why not give the Patriots’ third-round rookie a crack at regular carries? Damien Harris, after all, carried the football 150 times for 876 yards as well as nine touchdowns during his senior year at Alabama. And yet, he has been active for just two of the Patriots’ nine games so far this season and was on the field for a mere five offensive snaps — all while carrying the football four times for a combined 12 yards.
“The other guys are healthy. They’re all healthy and all doing well. You can’t play them all,” said Fears during a recent media availability session when speaking about the 22-year-old. “I love what he did in the preseason, I really did. He’s been very good here during the year. He hasn’t really had the opportunity to do anything out there but the couple shots he had in the one game, he ran well so I think he’s just waiting his turn.”
So far this season, Harris has been stuck at the bottom of the depth chart at the running back position. Sony Michel is the undisputed early-down back, with Rex Burkhead as a rotational option alongside him and third down/change-of-pace back James White. The trio has seen the bulk of the action so far this season, with veteran Brandon Bolden as the fourth option that saw an increased snap count while Burkhead was sidelined due to a foot injury.
While the quartet has yet to stand out this season, Fears seems happy with its development. Harris’ role has consequently been reduced to that of an emergency depth option, as the constraints of the 46-man game day roster forced the team to deactivate him on seven of nine occasions according to Fears: “I’ve got four guys that are really playing well, including Brandon Bolden. I can’t get [Harris] out there. I can’t carry five backs to the game.”
Despite the rookie’s lack of in-game action, however, it appears as if his position coach is feeling good about the direction in which he is headed — even if it does not translate into playing time just yet: “He’s done everything he’s supposed to do. He’s looked good, made the right reads, he’s run hard, he’s got vision, he’s got all the athletic ability, just waiting his turn. We’ll see what happens when he gets his shot.”
“He’s doing great. He’s handling it very well,” continued Fears. “I’m sure he’s eager as hell too to be out there as well. But he’s going great, he’s working his butt off and he’s ready and he’s waiting for a turn. Who am I taking out? They’re all playing their asses off. Damien has done nothing but good work out there. He’s doing well on the field and I think we’ll be very happy with him when he has to play. I think we’ll be okay. [...] He just needs a chance.”
Ultimately, it appears as if the Patriots are simply taking the same approach with Harris they took when they drafted James White in the fourth round back in 2014. Back then, White was the fifth option on the depth chart behind LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray. As a result, he appeared in only three games before taking over the receiving back role the next offseason after Vereen’s departure.
While it remains to be seen what the future holds for Harris, the Patriots seem content with letting him develop behind the scenes while moving forward with players that are more experienced and bring more special teams value to the table.