After already losing Ty Montgomery to injured reserve, the New England Patriots running back group has suffered another hit: Damien Harris, the team’s leading ball carrier through the first four weeks of the season, will reportedly miss “multiple games” because of a hamstring injury suffered in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions.
While Harris is expected to return at a later point, the Patriots are now thinner than desired at the position. Luckily they have some options available to bolster the group, both in-house and through other avenues. With that said, let’s take a look at some of them to assess where New England and its running back position might be headed.
Rhamondre Stevenson: Make no mistake, Stevenson is the undisputed RB1 for as long as Harris is out. The game against the Lions left no doubt about that: the only other back on the game-day roster, the sophomore played 90 percent of offensive snaps and had a career day. He carried the football 25 times for 161 yards and also had a pair of catches for 15 more. Stevenson’s stock is on the rise, and he will see a lot of action until Harris’ return.
Pierre Strong Jr.: A fourth-round pick out of South Dakota State, Strong Jr. has played only a marginal role so far this year; he has not touched the ball in his three offensive snaps so far. With Harris likely to miss some time, however, the Patriots might give him more opportunities to lift some pressure off of Stevenson’s shoulders.
J.J. Taylor: Third-year man J.J. Taylor is not the same type of player as Harris, but that does not mean the current practice squad back won’t have some value as a complementary piece with him out. Not only was he a relatively productive runner in preseason — 14 carries for 56 yards — he also has experience as a receiver out of the backfield.
Kevin Harris: Sixth-round rookie Harris saw considerable action in preseason, leading the team with 80 yards and a touchdown before being released and re-signed via the practice squad. As opposed to J.J. Taylor, he is more of a big-bodied player capable of serving as between-the-tackles runner and early-down back.
Lynn Bowden Jr.: Bowden Jr., who also is on New England’s practice squad, is more of a tweener between wide receiver and running back (and quarterback). His value lies in the passing game, but he falls into the Pierre Strong Jr. mold: taking pressure off of Stevenson.
Ty Montgomery II: The Patriots’ main passing back to open the year, Montgomery spent the last four weeks on injured reserve. He is eligible to return this week, but head coach Bill Belichick mentioned on Monday that he would not expect him at practice this week. For the time being, Montgomery’s outlook therefore remains unclear.
Free agent options
Mateao Durant: New England held a private workout with Durant in the pre-draft process, but the Duke product had to pass through free agency before landing in Pittsburgh. He has been a free agent since late August, and might be a practice squad option.
Nathan Cottrell: The Patriots had the former undrafted free agent in for a workout last year, but opted not to sign him. While his production in the NFL has been limited — one 3-yard carries in 12 career games with the Jacksonville Jaguars the last two seasons — he might be worth taking another look at given the current situation.
Carlos Hyde: Want experience? Then Carlos Hyde might be your guy. The 32-year-old is coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons in Seattle and Jacksonville, but before that put up 1,070 rushing yards while playing under ex-Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in Houston.
Nate McCrary: A former rookie free agent who spent time in Baltimore and Denver over his first two seasons in the league, McCrary was invited for a workout in late September. He has played just one career game, registering -1 yards on his lone carry, but the Patriots have shown interest before so they might just do it again.
La’Mical Perine: A fourth-round draft pick by the New York Jets in 2020, Perine had a solid rookie season but was buried on the depth chart under a new regime in 2021. He was released ahead of roster cutdowns and later spent time on Philadelphia’s practice squad; taking a look at him would make some sense.
Practice squad options
Tyler Badie (Baltimore Ravens): Baltimore selected Badie in the sixth round of this year’s draft after a massively productive senior campaign at Missouri: he had 1,934 yards from scrimmage and scored 18 touchdowns — all while never fumbling the ball. His ball security and ability to help as both a ball-carrier and receiver make him an enticing target in case they open a roster spot by moving Harris to injured reserve.
Godwin Igwebuike (Seattle Seahawks): Igwebuike was part of the workout group last month that also included Nate McCrary, but as opposed to his fellow running back he has since found a home: the 28-year-old is currently on Seattle’s practice squad. That does not mean New England won’t poach him, even though it seems a bit unlikely they would go that route in this particular case.
Duke Johnson (Buffalo Bills): Johnson has never been an elite running back, but he offers some positional flexibility and plenty of experience. He currently finds himself on Buffalo’s practice squad, but his experience in a Patriots-like offense in Miami last year is an argument in his favor.
Phillip Lindsay (Indianapolis Colts): Lindsay is three years removed from his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in Denver, and he has never returned to show similar form. That said, his experience might make him an enticing target to get poached off the Colts’ practice squad.
Devine Ozigbo (Denver Broncos): A former Patriot, Ozigbo spent time on New England’s practice squad last season and was then retained on a futures contract in January. After the team added two running backs in the draft, however, he was released and is now on the Broncos’ practice squad.
Chuba Hubbard (Carolina Panthers): While Christian McCaffrey has been in the news as a potential trade candidate after the Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule and officially embarked on a rebuild, the Patriots might actually be more interested in one of his backups. Hubbard has played only a minor role so far this season behind McCaffrey but he was productive in 2021 — 786 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns — and is still on a rookie contract running through 2024. New England loves going after players it saw in joint practices, and Hubbard would certainly make sense to be brought aboard.
Zamir White (Las Vegas Raiders): Similar story as Hubbard, different team. The Patriots and old friends Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler have not shied away from making trades, and White might be a player worth targeting. Yes, he is a fourth-round rookie and the Raiders might be looking for equivalent value, but he has been buried on their depth chart. It seems unlikely Las Vegas will move him, but at 1-4 they might be more willing to part with assets — even those only recently acquired.
Realistically, the Patriots will not make any major investments to bolster their running back group and help replace Harris for however long he will be absent. While there are some interesting options out there, the most likely scenario will be the team turning to Rhamondre Stevenson and Pierre Strong Jr., while also trusting its practice squad to provide depth alongside the two.
Losing Harris, even if only temporarily, is obviously a blow to the Patriots offense. However, Stevenson has shown that he can be a bell-cow back if asked to play that role. The remaining depth options — Strong Jr., J.J. Taylor and Kevin Harris in particular — should be enough to hold down the fort until the team’s nominal RB1 returns.