The ground gained by Damien Harris as an NFL sophomore is on track to continue in 2021.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick can see why throughout.
“Damien works extremely hard,” Belichick said during his Wednesday video conference before the final practice of mandatory minicamp. “Works at all phases, all aspects of his game. Certainly, his conditioning and training — running game, passing game, protection, route-running, catching the ball. He’s a hardworking kid that just tries to do whatever he can to help the team and he’s got a lot of skill and can contribute in a variety of ways.”
Harris led the Patriots with 691 rushing yards on 137 carries last season despite missing six games due to finger and ankle ailments that resulted in a pair of stints on injured reserve. He scored two touchdowns and turned the initial five catches of his career into 52 yards.
Along the way came a 90.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked Harris atop the New England roster and behind only fellow Alabama product Derrick Henry’s 92.4 among running backs around the league.
“And he’s looking to improve and upgrade where he is in every area,” added Belichick.
Harris arrived in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft as one of just eight backs in Crimson Tide history to reach 3,000-yard rushing mark. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry during his tenure in Tuscaloosa, setting a program record for those with 400-plus carries.
A redshirt year followed, with Harris touching the ball four times over the course of two appearances as a Patriots rookie, before he went on to start each of his 10 appearances last campaign. Those appearances saw Harris face at least eight defenders in the box on nearly 40 percent of his attempts, according to Next Gen Stats.
Belichick credited running backs coach Ivan Fears and Vinnie Sunseri, who most recently held the title of defensive assistant, for their close work with the 24-year-old Harris this spring.
“He’s responded well,” said Belichick, “and I think he’s off to a real good start in preparation for the season.”
Harris resides atop a backfield depth chart that stands with Sony Michel, James White, Brandon Bolden, J.J. Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and fourth-round draft choice Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma. New England declined Michel’s $4.523 fifth-year option as the calendar turned to May, while veterans in White and Bolden are also scheduled to become free agents next March.