As it currently stands, the New England Patriots' backfield is a mess. For the most part, this is more-so by design rather than personnel. The Patriots run one of the heaviest split backfields in the NFL from year-to-year. We would be in the right to call Bill Belichick a "Running Backs Don't Matter" truther, save for the part where he drafted Sony Michel in Round 1 of the NFL Draft just two years ago.
The Patriots have not had a true "workhorse" running back since Corey Dillon in the mid-2000s. Sony Michel was presumably the future of the backfield but he fell flat on his face in 2019 and has been working with rocks for hands since his rookie season.
As we've seen in New England, for every Benjarvus Green-Ellis, LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, or Sony Michel there is Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and James White. Occasionally, we will see the mythical Dion Lewis who will be utilized as both a runner and receiver but unfortunately, these are few-and-far-between. Damien Harris falls within the former category but has the potential for more. At the moment, we are strictly concerned with not only getting the most bang for our buck but also seizing control of one of the most productive running environments in the NFL.Editor's Note: Get any full-season NFL Premium Pass for 50% off. Exclusive access to our Premium articles, rankings, projections, 15 lineup tools and daily Premium DFS research/tools including our Lineup Optimizer, Research Station and so much more! Sign Up Now!
Why Not Sony Michel?
Michel came into the NFL with a reported bone-on-bone injury to his knee which is typically degenerative and requires serious workload management. While he has not missed a game due to a flare-up, he does typically miss practices for rehab mid-week. The injury is mostly a pain management issue with potential long-term repercussions.
His career thus far has been such an anomaly after posting 64 receptions on 83 targets in four college seasons at Georgia with nearly 10 yards-per-reception. Michel is one of the biggest one-trick ponies in the NFL and defensive coordinators realize that by-and-large. In 2019, he faced stacked boxes (eight or more in the box) on nearly 34% of his carries which is an increase from the 26%~ rate in 2018. His presence on the field is a full-on tell.
Michel excelled as a runner during his rookie season. He posted 931 yards on 209 carries in the regular season and 336 yards on 71 carries across three playoff games (including a Super Bowl win) with six total touchdowns to match his regular-season total. While a good chunk of the credit is due to the offensive line and good scheming, he "did his job" as the New England motto goes.
2019 was a different story as he rightfully earned more work, played a full season, and lost a large chunk of efficiency. He averaged fewer than four yards-per-carry and saw nearly double the targets from his rookie season but yet again failed to do much with them. He's totaled 19 receptions on 31 targets for 144 yards and no scores as a pass-catcher thus far.
What's most shocking is Michel's lack of burst. Michel looks like he's maintaining his posture at all times with his straight-up running style and hits cruise control in open space rather than accelerating.
To be fair to Michel, he does have one elite trait: pass-blocking. PFF has him graded as one of the best in the league with an 82 grade last season and it would explain why Belichick liked having him on the field so often despite the production being lesser than that of other running backs in New England.
Now, Michel is coming off of a foot surgery from June and could begin training camp on the PUP list. While this PUP is not as severe as the regular season PUP where a player must sit out at least six games before activation, it is concerning that he will not be ready in time for what should the oddest training camp maybe ever due to current conditions with the global pandemic.
Why Damien Harris?
Do not get me wrong, the claim here is not that Harris will take over the entire backfield and command a monster workload as a dual-threat who usurps even James White. While it is in the realm of possibility (a sliver of a chance), the assertion is that Harris will take Michel's primary rushing role as soon as this season.
No one has a better sense of Sony Michel's medicals than the Patriots and their team doctors. Maybe that is what led them to draft Damien Harris in Round 3 of the 2019 Draft. Maybe they just really liked him and couldn't pass? Who knows for sure, but the fact of the matter is that they spent a premium, top-75 pick on two running backs in back-to-back years which is peculiar, to say the least.
Despite sharing a backfield with Josh Jacobs, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris, and technically Jalen Hurts throughout his productive, last three years at Alabama, Harris managed to accrue two 1000 yard seasons and did it while averaging just over 7 yards per carry in both of them. Obviously, playing with NFL-level QBs and pass-catchers while behind top tier offensive lines will benefit any running back, Harris's sustained success is impressive, especially against SEC competition.
Harris is a very talented one-cut runner who does not spend much time behind the line-of-scrimmage. He is the embodiment of a power-back with an incredibly wide frame and tough, head-first running style. While he may not be agile, Harris's mix of size, speed, and athleticism is enough to make him the most dangerous RB in New England from a talent stand-point. Harris has something none of the other rushers have in his ability to burst into open space.
The addition of Cam Newton is a plus for every running back in New England, which makes it difficult to use that as a plus for anyone in particular. It is definitely possible that one of Sony Michel or Damien Harris benefits more from read-option plays but that is tough to tell at the moment. Harris was quite successful with Jalen Hurts back in Alabama while Michel was more-so in a pro-style offense throughout his career at Georgia with a mix of Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason, and Greyson Lambert.
Also, with Newton in town, not only will he team's pass attempts go down but the shape of the backfield could look a lot different. With Tom Brady at QB, the offense was working around an immobile QB who needed a clean pocket to operate. Brady could always improvise and work towards a quick-hitting offense to work around the bad OL at times but that is not when he was at his best. Brady, to his credit though, was agile in the pocket and tough to bring down. Cam Newton is even tougher and has the ability (when healthy) to escape the pocket and improvise plays.
Pass protection will absolutely still matter but the degree to which it does for running backs, in particular, could change. Why do I bring this up? Well, it just so happens that Damien Harris's fatal flaw is pass-protection. It would explain why he only received four total carries in the 2019 regular season despite consistently poor outings from Sony Michel. Michel's leash was extremely long last season as he managed to stay healthy and touch the ball 250 times.
Harris doesn’t really set his feet when attacking a rusher and often is knocked back— Kev “Mr. Small Chest” Mahserejian (@RotoSurgeon) July 12, 2020
You would think someone at his size would be better lol pic.twitter.com/rczSy5irGR
Harris's current redraft price is between pick 150 and 200 (fluctuating based on league). Drafting him in the teen round will not tank your draft if he does not see much more work than last year or fails to produce with an expanded workload. Harris provides immense upside given that he may be the lead-back in one of the consistently great offenses in the NFL that is ready to adapt to a new style of QB with the departure of Tom Brady.