Coming off a 2020 season that saw them consistently struggle to challenge opposing defenses, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do on the offensive side of the ball. But while the passing offense needs almost a complete overhaul — from the quarterback position to the wide receiver and tight end talent — the Patriots’ running game was a bright spot across the board.
Veterans James White and Rex Burkhead were reliable as always, while the group’s young talent in particular stood out. Both Damien Harris and Sony Michel played some quality football over the course of the Patriots’ 7-9 season, and were important parts of the team’s strong ground attack.
In fact, the two were among the most efficient running backs in football throughout the year (via Nick Olson):
As can be seen, both Harris and Michel graded positively in two advanced statistical categories: expected points added per rush and success rate. Among backs who carried the football at least 75 times during the regular season, Michel ranked sixth in EPA while Harris ranked tenth. When it comes to success rate, Michel and Harris were the twelfth and sixth best backs in football last season.
Long story short, the two were pretty good — something also illustrated by their raw statistics: Harris was the Patriots’ lead runner and finished with 137 carries for 691 yards and two touchdowns. Michel, meanwhile, carried the football 79 times for 449 yards and a score.
Of course, running backs like most other players never operate in a vacuum: they need the blocking up front to function as well in order to gain meaningful yardage. Despite losing long-time assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia during the offseason and with injuries forcing numerous personnel changes up front, New England’s blocking especially in the run game was superb throughout the year.
While this is obviously a positive to build upon moving forward, the matter of fact is that the line could look drastically different in 2021 — and so could the running backs’ room to operate. After all, both left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews are headed for unrestricted free agency (as are the aforementioned White and Burkhead, by the way). While it seems likely that Andrews returns, Thuney is a candidate to leave New England.
Accordingly, the Patriots would have to reshuffle their interior offensive line. Impressive right tackle Michael Onwenu might move to the interior to fill Thuney’s old spot, with his previous position suddenly opening up.
Still, if the Patriots can keep Andrews and get some second-year development out of Onwenu they should again be fine up front. This, in turn, would again create a friendly environment for the running backs: Damien Harris and Sony Michel both struggled with injury at times in 2020, but should be the one-two punch at their position again during the upcoming season.
With questions at quarterback and the other skill positions, having two reliable runners behind a solid O-line to take pressure off whoever is throwing the football could be immensely important. It obviously did not help last year — the Patriots’ passing offense was atrocious at times — but having quality pieces around him should only help a new starting QB adapt to life in New England.
Both Harris and Michel showed last year that they can be just that.