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Is Damien Harris the “X-Factor” of a Loaded Running Back Group?

Steve Balestrieri
Steve Balestrieri on Twitter
3 years ago at 6:57 am ET

Is Damien Harris the “X-Factor” of a Loaded Running Back Group?Jim Brown - USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots offense this season isn’t getting a lot of love this spring from the pundits who cover the NFL. Some have gone so far as to call them the least talented group in the league. But one position belies that assumption and that is the running back position.

Former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum called the Patriots running back position the best in the NFL as a guest on ESPN’s “Get Up!” morning program. “When you think about that running back room, it is the best room of any position group in all of football,” Tannenbaum said.

While I may not be totally on board with Tannenbaum’s assessment, the fact is, the RB position is arguably the deepest on the team but with some limitations. Those could very well be a thing of the past.  

The backs are deep enough that Damien Harris, the 2019 3rd round running back out of Alabama essentially had a red-shirt season where he was mainly a game-day healthy scratch. Harris played only a handful of snaps as a rookie, which is what the Patriots did with both James White and Shane Vereen in their rookie campaigns.  

But it is Harris that is our version of the Patriots “X-Factor” on offense this season. We were thrilled with his selection in the draft last season, and that enthusiasm hasn’t worn off. Harris is a very talented runner and pass catcher something the Patriots need. Sony Michel has been the workhorse type of running back but he hasn’t been able to become the pass catcher that the Patriots envisioned when they drafted him. 

The Patriots signed UDFA J.J. Taylor this spring after the draft. The diminutive but electric Taylor will have a rough time making the roster because of the depth but we love what he can bring to the field. 

When Michel is on the field, the Patriots run nearly 70 percent of the time. When he’s off the field the Patriots pass nearly 75 percent of the plays. Michel is a patient runner who looks for a hole from his blocking. Can Michel be a bit more impactful and create more space on his own and catch the ball more in 2020?  Harris is elusive and averaged a Crimson Tide record 6.4 yards per carry. He is also a very good pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield. 

James White has been the designated third-down pass catcher for the offense. Michel the designated runner. Rex Burkhead is the only “proven” dual-threat back. The coaches love his running style but he’s had issues staying healthy and on the field. Brandon Bolden has played only a handful of offensive snaps but is an outstanding special team’s player.

We’re looking for Harris to show the versatility that he showed at Alabama now that he has had a year to learn the offense. We saw glimpses of this during the preseason and he is playing for a very demanding but excellent coach in Ivan Fears. Despite his scant playing time, Fears said last fall that the team wasn’t dissatisfied with Harris’ development at all. He was just a victim of the depth the Patriots enjoy at the position. 

The Patriots ran more two-back sets than any team but one last year, but they were a little bit predictable because of the one-dimensional aspect of some of their players. This caused teams to scheme James White out of the offense by placing their second-best coverage player on him, because of the lack of viable tight ends. 

Despite the talented group of backs, their at-times one-dimensionality hurt the offense reaching their potential. Also, the lack of a true fullback hurt, James Develin and then Jakob Johnson was a big loss in the running game. Dan Vitale and Johnson returning should go a long way in alleviating that. 

Harris has the potential to be a true three-down back in the Patriots offense. The other thing he’ll have to do is carve out a role on 4th down. Both Burkhead and Bolden have significant roles in the kicking game. He did do that at Alabama, but he’ll have to show he can do it here as well. But if Harris can generate some early momentum in the workouts this spring and early summer, he could carve out a substantial role for himself in Year 2. 

Just like Shane Vereen and White did in their sophomore seasons. An exciting summer is on the books for the Patriots in training camp this year. Stay tuned…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on Stitcher as Russ Goldman, Derek Havens, and myself from discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis.


Posted Under: 2020 Patriots Offseason
Tags: 53 Man Roster Projection Bill Belichick Brandon Bolden Damien Harris Ivan Fears James White NFL Patriots Patriots running backs Rex Burkhead Sony Michel

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