Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s backfield.
Name: Damien Harris
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 37
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Even though Harris has spent just one year in the NFL, he does have plenty of football experience to look back on from his four seasons at the University of Alabama. After serving as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry during his 2015 true freshman season, Harris broke out during his sophomore campaign by leading the Crimson Tide in both rushing yards — a feat he also accomplished in 2017 and 2018 — and yards from scrimmage (as he did one year later).
As Alabama’s top running back option for three of his four seasons with the school, Harris finished his college career with some impressive numbers. Appearing in a total of 56 games, he carried the football 477 times for 3,070 yards and 23 touchdowns and also added 407 yards and two scores on 52 receptions. He also helped the team win two national championships. While he was not able to build on this success during his first year as a pro — Harris touched the ball just four times in 2019 — his experience is impressive.
What did his 2019 season look like? When the Patriots selected Harris in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, they added him to one of the deepest offensive backfields in the league. Nevertheless, he did see plenty of practice reps during New England’s offseason workouts: with lead back Sony Michel missing the final portion of OTAs as well as minicamp due to a knee injury, Harris stepped in as the next man up. His momentum did not carry into training camp, however, and by extension the preseason and regular season as well.
All in all, the rookie therefore made the Patriots’ active roster on just two of a possible 17 occasions — he was a healthy scratch 13 time and also missed a pair of contests in mid-November due to a hamstring injury — and played a mere 10 snaps between offense and special teams: in Week 3 against the New York Jets, he played five snaps on New England’s punt return squad; four weeks later, in the Patriots’ rematch against their AFC East rivals, Harris played five more snaps as a late-game running back.
When actually on the field, the youngster had but a limited impact. Playing a mop-up role on the offensive side of the ball, he touched the football only four times and gained a combined 12 yards — all while not registering any statistics in the passing game or on special teams. With Michel being able to suit up for all 17 of the team’s games, and both James White and Rex Burkhead offering different skillsets, Harris was relegated to the status of an emergency option.
His most action therefore came in preseason, even though he sat out two of the team’s games (possibly as a result of a hand/wrist issue that limited him in training camp): playing exclusively on the offensive side of the ball, Harris was on the field for a combined 39 snaps and registered 16 carries for 88 yards as well as four receptions for 23 more. His combined 111 yards from scrimmage ranked him fifth on New England’s offense in preseason, even though they did not lead to any significant playing time when the games actually started to matter.
What is his projected role? Based on his usage during his rookie campaign — both in training camp, preseason and regular season — the Patriots seem to project Harris as an early-down back in the mold of Sony Michel. As such, he enters the 2020 season as the second option on this specific depth chart. He could therefore be used as a rotational option to lift some pressure off Michel, and in specific situations such as short-yardage and goal-to-go scenarios.
What is his special teams value? Even though the Patriots used him only marginally in the kicking game in 2019, Harris does have some experience as a special teamer from his time at Alabama: he saw considerable action, and finished his college career with nine kickoff returns for 174 yards (all of which during his freshman season) as well as one 19-yard punt return. Furthermore, Harris also blocked a punt during his junior campaign. While it remains to be seen how New England evaluates him in the game’s third phase, he does have some value.
Does he have positional versatility? Harris did post solid receiving numbers with the Crimson Tide, but does not fall in the same category as the versatile members of New England’s backfield (James White, Rex Burkhead). Based on his rookie year, he projects to be more of a one-dimensional package-specific early-down/short-yardage back who offers comparatively limited upside in the passing game.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of his four-year rookie pact, Harris will hit the Patriots’ books with a cap number of $896,534 — barely qualifying as a top-51 player counting against the salary cap. Even though the only guarantee remaining in his contract is his signing bonus proration, however, the team would effectively not generate any net savings on their 2020 cap by releasing him.
What is his roster outlook? Harris had a quiet rookie season, and will look to make some noise in Year Two. The question is how this could look like. Will he become the 1B as an early-down back alongside Sony Michel, or will he carve out a different role than the one projected on him? Or will he not be able to make the famous second-year jump at all? One thing is certain: despite being in the league for just over a year, Harris is under some pressure to show that he can successfully play running back at the next level.