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NFL free agency 2023: How will the Patriots replace Damien Harris?

After four years in New England, Harris is taking his talents to Buffalo.

NFL: JAN 02 Jaguars at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots offense did not just lose its most productive wide receiver of the last three seasons in free agency, but also its most productive running back. Damien Harris, who registered a team-high 2,102 rushing yards over that three-year span, will play for the Buffalo Bills in 2023 after signing a one-year contract.

While Harris was coming off a challenging season that saw him miss six games because of three different ailments — a fact that contributed to sophomore running back Rhamondre Stevenson taking over the lead-back role — he still proved himself a good player when on the field. In total, he carried the ball 106 times for 462 yards and three touchdowns, ranking second to Stevenson in all three categories.

The Patriots now have to find a way to replace that production. Disregarding the trade market (because it seems unlikely the team will explore that option), there are three ways how that can be accomplished: internally, through free agency, or via the draft.

Let’s take a look at each one to see what the Patriots’ best way to proceed might look like.

In-house options

With Harris not returning, the Patriots currently have six running backs under contract. Not all of them are fully suited to fill the role played by Harris in 2022, but the team could get contributions from all of them.

Rhamondre Stevenson: As noted above, Stevenson took over as New England’s RB1 during his 2022 sophomore campaign. The former fourth-round draft pick will continue to serve in that capacity this season, but the development of those around him — especially sophomores Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris — as well as the addition of James Robinson in free agency might help decrease his workload a bit after he seemingly ran out of gas down the stretch last year.

Pierre Strong Jr.: A fourth-round pick last spring, Strong Jr. touched the ball just 17 times as a rookie. However, he looked promising when on the field and might be in line for the famous second-year jump. What his role will look like remains to be seen, though: he could serve as a receiving back in the mold of James White, or, more likely, become a change-of-pace option similar to another ex-Patriot, Rex Burkhead.

Ty Montgomery II: Montgomery joined the Patriots last offseason and entered the year as the James White replacement in the receiving department. However, he lasted only one game and was knocked out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.

James Robinson: The Patriots signed Robinson to a reported two-year deal worth $4.5 million, and he might be best suited to take over for Harris. He is no burner, but has the elusiveness to make defender miss and power to violently hit the hole in front of him — all while also offering a bitt in the passing game. All in all, though, he projects as a complementary option for Stevenson.

Kevin Harris: Like fellow rookie Pierre Strong Jr., Kevin Harris also only saw minimal action in 2022. More of a classic between-the-tackles and early-down runner, he might help replace Damien Harris’ contributions as a short-yardage and goal-line back — if he can show some improvement in Year 2.

J.J. Taylor: Taylor is a tweener in the Patriots backfield, who has some short-area agility but at 5-foot-6, 185 pounds cannot reliably serve in an all-purpose role. His usage over the last three seasons — playing 12 games and touching the ball 58 times for 176 yards and a pair of scores — is a reflection of that.

While we know Rhamondre Stevenson will be the No. 1 early-down back, the complementary roles are a bit TBD at this point in time. A lot depends on sophomores Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris, two players who showed promise in limited opportunities in 2022. If they can emerge as viable members of the rotation, the Patriots might not have to rely as much on veterans Ty Montgomery and James Robinson.

Free agency options

The Patriots have already picked up one free agent running back, and if they want to do so again — especially with their current personnel in mind — the following players might make sense as targets.

Leonard Fournette (UFA): The Patriots already took a look at Fournette last offseason, when they brought him in for a workout but he eventually decided to return to Tampa Bay. Could second time be the charm? It’s possible given that the 28-year-old is still a productive player who has developed into a dual-threat back who has shown that he can be a productive receiver as well.

Darrell Henderson (SFA): Henderson has been available since Jacksonville released him in December, so it appears the Patriots and the rest of the league are not necessarily enamored with what he has to offer. Still, at only 25 he might be worth a shot as a cheap “see what you can still do” pickup.

Ty Johnson (UFA): The Patriots love tapping into their division to find free agency targets, and Johnson would be a realistic target. While the 25-year-old has never emerged past role player status with the Detroit Lions and, most recently, New York Jets, he could fill a rotational role in New England’s backfield and help out on special teams.

Ronald Jones II (UFA): His one-year stint in Kansas City was a quiet one, as was his final year in Tampa Bay. Jones is still just two years removed from back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and at age 25 might have some rebound potential — potential that likely comes at a small price.

Jerick McKinnon (UFA): McKinnon is entering free agency off a bounce-back season of sorts that saw him register 895 total yards from scrimmage for the world-champion Chiefs. While he is more than capable as a ball-carrier, his value might lie in the passing game: he caught 61 passes for 544 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022.

Sony Michel (SFA): Like his former teammate, Darrell Henderson, Michel has been on the market since December. A former first-round draft pick by the Patriots, he knows the organization and would offer a skillset similar to Harris’ — all at a relatively low cost.

Darrel Williams (UFA): His one-year stint in Arizona was a disappointment, and with a new regime taking over in Arizona it seems Williams leaving is likely. The Patriots adding him to their backfield as a versatile option would be possible in that scenario.

While those are not the only running backs available in free agency, they appear to be the most intriguing from a New England point of view. However, after already signing James Robinson to a two-year deal, it seems unlikely the Patriots will invest additional resources into a veteran player — at least to fill the role held by Harris in 2022.

Draft options

Led by Texas’ Bijan Robinson and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, this year’s draft offers some intriguing early-round talent at the running back position. That said, the Patriots making a pick in the first two days seems like a long-shot given who they have on the roster at this point in time. Accordingly, we will focus on projected later-round options here.

Israel Abanikanda (Pittsburgh): At 5-foot-11, 216 pounds, Abanikanda is a bigger back. He offers more than just a sturdy build, though, but in fact also has some impressive straight-line speed. A home-run option whose strengths lies on early downs, he offers plenty of developmental potential.

Devon Achane (Texas A&M): Achane is like a higher-ceiling J.J. Taylor. While on the smaller side at under 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, he has the explosiveness to become a difference-maker at the next level. Adding him to a Rhamondre Stevenson-led group would give the Patriots some interesting rotational options.

RB Aidan Borguet (Harvard): New England has shown some interest in Borguet in the pre-draft process. The 5-foot-10, 211-pounder is more of a bruiser type and early-down option; he ran the ball 206 times for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2022, but caught only five passes (for 51 yards and another TD).

RB Zach Evans (Ole Miss): A projected mid-round selection, Evans is an early-down running back option with between-the-tackles potential. At 5-foot-11, 202 pounds, he offers good size and physicality to succeed at the next level.

Roschon Johnson (Texas): If the Patriots want size, Johnson is their guy. At 6-foot-0, 219 pounds, he is a big back — and he moves as such. His game is not built on evading defenders, but rather on running them over and using his build, vision and contact balance to his advantage.

DeWayne McBride (UAB): He may not offer the same blazing speed as other backs in this year’s draft, but Bride has an intriguing skillset. At 5-foot-10, 209 pounds, he offers power to push the pile and get the tough yards, while also having a natural feel for letting blocks develop and rushing lanes open up.

Kendre Miller (TCU): A classic early-down back who has limited potential in the receiving game, Miller’s relative one-dimensionality should not shy away teams from investing a late-round draft pick in him. What he does, he does well: he has good vision, can run through tackle attempts, and knows how to generate yards despite a lack of outstanding athletic skill.

If the Patriots indeed want to add to their running backs corps in the draft, these options might make sense for them on Day 3. Not all of them offer the same exact skillset as Harris, but they would complement the current group well — all while playing on relatively cheap rookie deals.