With the first wave of New England Patriots players reporting to training camp on Sunday, we also got a look at those that are not yet deemed ready to participate in practice. The club placed seven players on health-related reserve lists, with six getting the ‘physically unable to perform’ label and one being tagged with a ‘non-football injury.’ Among the men to go to PUP also was the Patriots’ top running back from a year ago.
Sony Michel underwent a knee arthroscopy earlier this offseason — he missed a combined three games last year due to two separate knee injuries — and was absent for a large portion of New England’s spring workouts. The team is obviously taking a cautious approach with the second-year man, who played a key role in its Super Bowl run last year. With Michel now out, though, the rest of the position group will be pushed into the spotlight.
One player in particular will get elevated to the forefront at running back: Damien Harris. The Alabama product, who was selected by the Patriots in the third round of this year’s draft, already took the lead-back role during OTAs and mandatory minicamp. He performed well, but the circumstances have obviously changed since then. After all, offseason workouts are strictly non-contact. Training camp, on the other hand, features live tackling and is as close to ‘normal’ football as you can get in the offseason.
For Harris and his development, the time until Michel’s return to full action will therefore be big. Not only will he get his first taste of NFL physicality, he also will have a lot on his plate and needs to show the coaches that he can be trusted as the number one early-down back if need be — something he proved in college but will have to show on a consistent basis in the pros as well. That is, after all, why the Patriots invested the 87th overall draft pick in him.
So what’s in store for the 22-year-old with training camp only two days away? Until Michel comes back off the PUP list, Harris will be the number one running back yet again and as such see considerable practice reps with the first-team offense. He will be featured extensively in different situations — from the red zone to early-down runs to short-yardage situations — and also be tested as a pass protector.
The experience Harris will gain along the way could prove beneficial further down the line: even with the lead back’s return on the horizon, he is expected to play a considerable role within New England’s offensive attack. Over the next few days (or maybe more, depending on the starter’s status), Harris and the Patriots will therefore have a prime opportunity to keep building on the rookie’s foundation for the 2019 season.