Finishing the 2022 season with an 8-9 record and out of the playoffs, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do to return to postseason contention. One big part of this process will be taking care of their own class of free agents.
Quite a few players are headed for the open market, with a total of 18 players left that were with New England last year in need of a new contract. Among them is running back Damien Harris, who is an unrestricted free agent and is scheduled to hit the open market on March 15.
Name: Damien Harris
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 37
Opening day age: 26
Size: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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 in a redshirt capacity — 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. Before injuries slowed him down a bit in 2022, he was clearly the most productive back in New England.
Over the course of his NFL career, Harris has seen action in 39 regular season and playoff games. During those contests, he carried the football a combined 458 times for 2,124 yards as well as 20 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 41 passes for 288 yards. Usually a reliable player when on the field, he has missed some time due to injury: between 2020 and 2022, he had to sit out 13 games due to a multitude of ailments.
What did his 2022 season look like? Coming off his most productive season as a pro, expectations were high for Harris heading into the final year of his rookie contract. He did indeed play some solid football for the Patriots, but his 2022 campaign as a whole can be seen as a disappointment: he had to miss six games due to three different medical issues, and subsequently lost his status as the undisputed RB1 to sophomore Rhamondre Stevenson — resulting in his least productive season since his 2019 rookie season.
All in all, Harris took the field in 11 of the Patriots’ 17 games. Playing 238 of a possible 1,052 offensive snaps (22.6%), he finished the year with 123 touches and 559 yards from scrimmage — ranking second and third, respectively, in the two categories. Most of his production unsurprisingly came on the ground: spending much of the year in a two-man rotation with Stevenson, Harris carried the football 106 times for 462 yards and all three of his touchdowns. Additionally, he caught 17 passes for 97 yards.
Whereas his young teammate enjoyed a breakout campaign of sorts, Harris’ impact was less pronounced than it had been in previous years. Stevenson’s strong play for most of the year played a part in that, but so did the aforementioned injury issues: Harris suffered a hamstring ailment in Week 6 versus Detroit that cost him the next game at Cleveland, followed by an illness that kept him out of another (Week 9 vs. Indianapolis). Then, on Thanksgiving against the Minnesota Vikings, he suffered a lingering thigh injury.
The injury, which occurred in the early second half, kept Harris out for the remainder of the game and the following four contests as well. With Stevenson dealing with an ankle injury at that point, however, Harris was not eased back into the mix after his return in Week 17: he posted his two highest playing-time shares over the final two weeks of the season, playing a combined 65 snaps. All in all, he touched the football 26 times for 101 yards during those two games — not necessarily eye-popping numbers but still solid production.
Even though he took a backseat to Stevenson for much of the season and scored his last touchdown in Week 4, Harris still had plenty of value to the Patriots offense. When he was on the field, he was mostly solid and also addressed the fumble problems that hurt him twice the previous year: he did not put the ball on the ground once all season. Additionally, he took on a bigger leadership role in the running back room, with veteran James White announcing his retirement over the summer.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Harris’ contract history is pretty straight forward. After joining the Patriots as a third-round pick in 2019, he signed a standard rookie deal that paid him a total of $3.87 million over four years.
Which teams might be in the running? While the value of the running back position has decreased significantly over the last few years, several teams might be interested in adding Harris. The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins or Philadelphia Eagles are all potential landing spots, as are the Las Vegas Raiders: with Josh Jacobs’ future unclear, the team of former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might just go after Harris.
Why should he be expected back? Harris’ injury history is a concern, but there is no denying he can be a productive runner and good complementary piece in the backfield. He also is a proven option in the team’s backfield — one the team does not have a lot of at the moment: Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris saw limited action as rookies in 2022, while Ty Montgomery suffered a season-ending injury in his first game in New England. The Patriots know what they have in Harris, and that in itself might be worth an investment.
Why should he be expected to leave? Running backs are a fungible commodity in today’s NFL, and Harris — fairly or not — is no exception. The Patriots meeting his possible contractual demands is therefore no guarantee, regardless of his past production in their system. That is especially true given that the team invested two draft picks last year in the aforementioned Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris; the former more of a receiving back, the latter a Harris-like between-the-tackles option.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Given his comparatively quiet 2022 campaign, injury history, and the position he plays, Harris’ market could be a slower-developing one. That would likely play into New England’s hands and might allow them to bring him back on the relatively cheap. Unless another team like the Raiders is too aggressive for the Patriots’ liking, Harris re-signing on a two-year deal at a value of around $6 million would make sense for both parties.
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