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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Damien Harris is the top option in New England’s running back committee

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: LB Brandon King

New England Patriots v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with running back Damien Harris.

Hard facts

Name: Damien Harris

Position: Running back

Jersey number: 37

Opening day age: 24

Size: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? After serving as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry during his 2015 true freshman season, Harris broke out during his sophomore campaign. As Alabama’s top running back the next three seasons he finished his college career with some impressive numbers: appearing in 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.

As a result of his productivity, Harris entered the 2019 draft as one of the better running back prospects available. As such, he was selected in the third round by the Patriots. While he played only a marginal role during his rookie season — essentially serving as a freshman — he broke out in 2020 and established himself as the team’s top early-down back and one of the better young runners in football. In total, Harris has seen playing time in 12 NFL games; he has carried the football 141 times for 703 yards and 2 touchdowns.

What did his 2020 season look like? With Sony Michel and Lamar Miller sidelined, Harris took on the role as the Patriots’ number one running back during the early portions of training camp. He literally ran with the opportunity: the second-year man was one of the most impressive players all summer and appeared to be well on his way to carve out a sizable role as an early-down back in the team’s new-look offense. His rise towards the top of the position depth chart was put on hold in September, however.

Harris broke a finger, underwent surgery, and subsequently had to spend the first three games of the year on injured reserve. When he returned in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs, however, he showed what he can bring to the equation: seeing the most extensive action of his professional career up until that point, Harris gained 100 yards on 17 carries. On a day that saw the Patriots struggle offensively — thanks in large part due to quarterback Cam Newton’s recent Covid-19 diagnosis — the young back was a bright spot.

That game was a sign of things to come. Even with Michel returning to the fold later during the year — the former first-round pick was himself sent to IR after Week 3 and not activated until Week 12 — Harris remained the top dog in New England’s backfield: before an ankle injury forced him to sit out the final three games of the year, he had gained 691 yards on 137 carries for an average of 5.0 yards per attempt. Of players with more than 100 rushing attempts, only old friend Derrick Henry had a better per-run average in 2020 (5.4 yards).

Harris also found the end zone twice for the first two touchdowns of his career. His contributions also included 5 receptions on 7 targets for 52 yards as well as some desirable ball security: he fumbled the ball just once all year, and actually had more recoveries (2) than turnovers (0). While had some ups and downs as a pass protector — he gave up three quarterback disruptions, including a sack — his positive moments far outweighed any minor negatives. Harris was one of the few reliable playmakers on New England’s offense.

Even though his injuries limited him to just 10 games, he still finished as the team’s leader in yards from scrimmage (743) and most productive ball-carrier. Harris undoubtably took advantage of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football, but he also showed an ability to read his keys, show patience and exploit holes wherever they might have popped up. Long story short, he played some impressive football and made the biggest jump among the Patriots’ second-year players.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Even with Sony Michel still in the fold and Rhamondre Stevenson added in the third round of the draft, Harris projects as the top option in New England’s running back committee. He is again expected to see a majority of his snaps as an early-down option, with Michel and the rookie possibly subbing in on select series or in pre-defined situations. Either way, Harris will enter training camp and the regular season as the Patriots’ RB1.

What is his special teams value? Even though the Patriots used him only marginally in the kicking game in 2019 and not at all in 2020, Harris does have some experience as a special teamer from his time at Alabama: he 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. That said, it does not look like New England views him as much of a presence in the game’s third phase.

Does he have positional versatility? Harris did catch five passes last year and also posted some solid receiving numbers with the Crimson Tide, but he projects as more of a one-dimensional runner who offers comparatively limited upside in the passing game. That said, he has shown some intriguing positional flexibility in 2020: Harris spent the majority of his time in the backfield (240 snaps) but he also split out wide at times (6) or in the slot (3). On top of it all, he was given two snaps as a wildcard quarterback in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third season of his rookie deal, Harris is on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of just $1.07 million: he is due a salary of $850,000 and will also receive his fully guaranteed $221,534 signing bonus proration. While his cap hit still qualifies him for Top-51 status — meaning that his contract does count against New England’s cap during the offseason — he is still one of the bigger bargains on the roster.

What is his roster outlook? Whereas Sony Michel’s status heading into 2021 is not set in stone, Harris’ very much is: he is a lock to make the roster, and will highly likely again serve as a prominent member of New England’s running back rotation. While he will again not offer much in terms of receiving skills, his early-down performance in 2020 was encouraging and suggests that the team will again use him in this way. The biggest questions is if he can stay healthy after two trips to injured reserve last year. Having Rhamondre Stevenson and possibly Michel as rotational options behind him should help, however.