When the New England Patriots selected Damien Harris in the third round of the 2019 draft, they added him to one of the deepest offensive backfields in the league. The rookie did see plenty of practice reps during his first set of offseason workouts when he filled in for lead back Sony Michel, who was recovering from a knee injury, but his momentum did not carry over into the regular season: Harris’ first year in the NFL was essentially a redshirt campaign.
The 87th pick of last year’s draft is therefore entering his second season in the system with almost no on-field experience to speak of outside of preseason. Harris made the Patriots’ active roster on just two of a possible 17 occasions during the regular season and playoffs — he was a healthy scratch 13 times and also missed a pair of contests due to a hamstring injury — and played a mere 10 snaps between offense and special teams.
And yet, Harris’ mindset in 2020 remains the same as it was when he first arrived in New England.
“The biggest thing for me last year was learning as much as I could,” Harris recently told Patriots.com’s Paul Perillo about his rookie campaign. “Everybody’s path is different. I focused on learning as much as I could and learning from the older guys in the room. There’s a lot of experience in that room. Any opportunity to improve physically or mentally that was my mindset all year. I have so many guys to learn from.”
The guys mentioned by Harris all bring impressive résumés to the table. Third-year back Michel is a former first-round draft pick who played a pivotal role in the Patriots’ 2018 Super Bowl run. James White is a team captain and one of the best receiving backs in all of football. Rex Burkhead is as good a third option as any in the league and an established change-of-pace runner and special teamer. Brandon Bolden first joined the organization in 2012 and has appeared in a combined 130 NFL games.
“Sony is a guy I knew from college and seeing his level of success was exciting; Rex and James have developed over the years,” said Harris about his teammates. “There’s so much I can learn from them on and off the field. Listening to what they’re telling me. How to become a pro. They all played their part in helping me learn and develop. The message from all of them is the same: be ready because you never know when your time will come and you don’t want to miss it. Stay the course, keep learning and be available.”
Harris’ time only came during mop-up duty last year: he carried the football four times for a total of 12 yards — all of which coming in the fourth quarter of a 33-0 blowout victory over the New York Jets.
In order to increase the marginal role he held over the course of his rookie season and make a case for himself on a deep running back depth chart, Harris has been actively training all offseason. Despite the Coronavirus pandemic forcing him and his teammates to work out together on a virtual rather than an on-field basis, the 23-year-old attempted to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves either as part of the group or individually.
“It’s been interesting,” Harris said about his offseason routine. “This is my first offseason in the league and with everything going on I still have to find a way to get my work in and prepare. I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunities I do have working out on my own and staying ready for whenever that time comes. It’s been different but at the same time I feel like I’m doing everything I can to stay prepared, whether that’s online or working out on my own.
“I was back in Alabama early and then back in Massachusetts,” he added. “I’ve had a little interaction with teammates. Some of the guys have been able to get together and work out safely and still be productive.”
With the Patriots scheduled to reconvene on July 28 — the report date for their training camp — Harris will get a chance to showcase his growth and become a more prominent member of the team’s offense. And with Michel having undergone foot surgery earlier this offseason, it might could come sooner rather than later. Last year, the young back did not take advantage of a similar situation. This year, he might just have the experience to do.