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NFL free agency 2023: Quick-hit thoughts on the Patriots losing Damien Harris to the Bills

The former third-round draft pick is leaving on a reported one-year deal.

Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots have lost another member of their free agency class. After wide receiver Jakobi Meyers left to join the Las Vegas Raiders last week, running back Damien Harris has now also departed Foxborough: he will sign a reported one-year contract with the Buffalo Bills.

How does the move impact the Patriots? Let’s take a look.

New England loses its most productive running back of the last four years... Harris originally joined the Patriots as a third-round selection in the 2019 draft, and despite playing only a minor role as a rookie went on to become a productive player for the team. He ranked first in rushing attempts and rushing yards in both 2020 and 2021, and additionally was No. 1 rushing touchdowns in 2021.

All in all, Harris’ Patriots career ends with 458 carries for 2,124 yards and 20 touchdowns, as well as 41 receptions for 288 yards. His combined 2,412 yards from scrimmage over the last four seasons ranked second on the team behind only Jakobi Meyers’ 2,805; his total touches and scores ranked first.

...and a popular locker room leader. When Harris entered the league, he shared the backfield with veteran players such as James White, Rex Burkhead and James Develin. All three left the team a short time later, with White the last to depart in the summer of 2022. The leadership void created by that turnover gave Harris an opportunity to step up, and he did: he became a vocal leader and popular guy in the locker room.

How will this aspect of Harris’ game be replaced? That remains to be seen, but the title of longest-tenured running back on New England’s roster now falls to third-year man J.J. Taylor — an undrafted rookie in 2020 who has seen minimal playing time so far. Realistically, Rhamondre Stevenson and/or Ty Montgomery will take over as the tone-setters for the rest of the group.

The running back room will miss the 26-year-old, and so will the Patriots’ quarterback: Harris and Mac Jones shared a close friendship that went all the way back to their days at the University of Alabama.

The writing was already on the wall. Harris leaving New England was a possibility ever since he entered the open market last week, and the signs started pointing in that direction rather quickly: on the very same day free agency officially began, the Patriots brought fellow running back James Robinson in on a two-year deal at a reported value of $4.5 million.

The team being willing to invest in Robinson with Harris unsigned sent a clear message, but it was not the only sign that the two sides were headed for a split. One could go as far back as last year’s draft, when two running backs — Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris — were picked up; a reflection of Harris’ pending free agency, but possibly also of his injury history.

Time will tell who among them will take over the RB2 role alongside Rhamondre Stevenson. But the Patriots seemingly feel confident in their abilities, or else they would not have let Harris leave on what projects to be a low-cost deal.

The Patriots will meet him twice this upcoming season. With Harris now off to Buffalo, we know that he will be on New England’s schedule twice in 2023: as division rivals, the two clubs will meet once at Gillette Stadium and once at New Era Field in Western New York.

There will be storylines aplenty regardless, but Harris moving within the AFC East adds yet another layer to those rivalry matchups.

The team’s 2019 draft class is down to two players, sort of. The Patriots selected 10 players in the 2019 draft, and only one of them remains with the team after Harris’ departure: Yodny Cajuste, please stand up!

The former third-round offensive tackle, of course, was tendered as a restricted free agent last week; he only became an RFA because he had to sit out his entire rookie season on the non-football injury list. In total, Cajuste has appeared in just 17 of a possible 68 games in his NFL career.

In addition to Cajuste, free agent cornerback Joejuan Williams could theoretically also rejoin the team. However, the second-round selection returning is unlikely after what was a disappointing stint with the club. Instead, it seems more likely that he will join a group that also includes ex-Patriots N’Keal Harry (1-32), Chase Winovich (3-77), Hjalte Froholdt (4-118), Jarrett Stidham (4-133), Byron Cowart (5-159), Jake Bailey (5-163) and Ken Webster (7-252).

Harris might factor into the compensatory draft picks formula. As a free agent leaving the Patriots through expiring contract rather than release, Harris might have a positive impact on New England’s compensatory draft picks formula for 2024. However, for that to happen his deal would first have to qualify — something that is not guaranteed given it is of the one-year variety and at a position that has been devalued over the last decade-plus.

But even if the contract handed out by the Bills is large enough to make the cut, the Patriots would still be in the red in that department: Harris is only the second free agent to leave, after Jakobi Meyers; on the other side, the team picked up six free agents, with at least four projected to qualify for compensatory calculation, per Over the Cap.

tl:dr The Patriots getting a draft pick out of losing Harris, or any other remaining member of their free agency class, will likely not happen.