With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with fourth-year running back Damien Harris.
Name: Damien Harris
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 37
Opening day age: 25
Size: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
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. He went on to spend his 2020 and 2021 campaigns as New England’s number one early-down running back.
All in all, Harris has seen action in a combined 28 regular season and playoff games. During those contests, he carried the football 352 times for 1,662 yards as well as 17 touchdowns; Harris is leading the Patriots in all three categories since joining them as the 87th overall draft pick in 2019. Additionally, he also caught 24 passes for 191 yards. While usually a reliable player when available — he has missed eight games over the last two years due to injury — he also has three fumbles on his résumé.
What did his 2021 season look like? After already establishing himself as a viable early-down back in the Patriots’ system during his 2020 sophomore campaign, Harris was in line to take the next step in his third season. His performance in training camp and preseason already was encouraging, with him taking RB1 snaps throughout the summer. When former first-round draft pick Sony Michel was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in late August, there was no doubt left: Harris would be New England’s lead back in 2021.
As such, the Alabama product was one of the Patriots’ most productive players on the offensive side of the ball. Appearing in 15 of a possible 18 games, Harris was on the field for 424 of 1,169 offensive snaps (36.3%) and carried the football a combined 211 times for 959 yards and 15 touchdowns. He furthermore caught 19 passes for 139 yards to end the season as one of just two Patriots players to cross the 1,000-yard mark (the other being Kendrick Bourne), and the only one to also do so in the regular season.
Harris’ raw numbers improved across the board compared to his 2020 breakout campaign, as did his yards after contact (262 to 460), first downs (30 to 56) as well as his broken tackles (12 to 16). His 2021 season is therefore very deserving of the “career year” tag. However, his efficiency numbers did not necessarily reflect this development. Not only did Harris’ yards per carry decrease from 5.0 to a still very good 4.6, he also had fewer yards (69.1 to 59.9) and rushing attempts (13.7 to 13.2) per game.
That was not necessarily worrisome, but Harris did have some truly disappointing moments as well. He missed one game each due to a concussion and a hamstring issue, and had some ups and downs throughout the season: he did have five 100-yard games, but also was a virtual non-factor in several games. He also lost a pair of fumbles, with the first of them sealing New England’s opening day loss to the Miami Dolphins: Harris lost the football deep in Miami territory in the late fourth quarter, negating a chance at a game-winning field goal.
All in all, though, Harris was a valuable cog in New England’s offensive machinery, especially with a rookie — first-round selection Mac Jones — starting at quarterback. The Patriots therefore relied on the third-year back to take some pressure off of Jones, and he delivered most of the time. The best example of that was the team’s Week 13 victory in Buffalo: with the team using a run-heavy approach against one of the league’s best defenses, Harris had 111 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries before suffering a game-ending hamstring injury.
What is his projected role? Even though he caught a career-high 19 passes last season and has seen more opportunities as a receiver out of the backfield, Harris’ role within the Patriots’ offense is expected to look like it has the last two years. He will be a top-of-the-rotation early-down running back and also see considerable opportunities in short-yardage and goal-line situations. As such, Harris should be averaging around 35-40 percent of offensive snaps once again.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, Harris did show some improvement as a receiving option in 2021 but his overall versatility is still somewhat limited compared to other members of the Patriots’ skill position group. That does not mean he has no flexibility in terms of position or usage, though, despite 96.5 percent of his snaps coming from the backfield. The other 3.5 percent, however, saw him split out wide (10 snaps), move into the slot (3) or even line up at right tackle in an odd formation (1); he also played three snaps as a wildcard quarterback without actually throwing the ball.
What is his special teams value? Even though the Patriots used him only marginally in the kicking game in 2019 and not at all the last two years, Harris has 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.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the four-year rookie contract he signed in 2019, Harris’ cap number stands at $1.19 million — just the 42nd highest on the team right now (and thus qualifying for Top-51 status during the offseason). The deal itself is structured in a pretty straight-forward fashion: Harris carries a $965,000 salary that is not guaranteed as well a fully-guaranteed $221,534 signing bonus proration.
How safe is his roster spot? Harris served as the Patriots’ number one early-down runner the last two seasons, but his status heading into a contract year is somewhat uncertain. Not only is there no guarantee he will be around beyond 2022, the team is also expecting a second-year jump out of Rhamondre Stevenson while adding fellow running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris in this year’s draft. Harris will therefore face some competition for playing time, even though the team will do what it always has done: give opportunities to those who earn them. Harris doing just that would not be a surprise, meaning that his spot on the roster should be fairly secure.
One-sentence projection: Harris might have some trade value, but the expectation is that he will not just be on the roster come the regular season but in fact again serve as one of the Patriots’ most productive offensive players.