Patriots Offseason Primer: Can Damien Harris Be a Pro Bowler?

The Patriots’ 2021 season is right around the corner. After seeing the roster fall into place following the NFL Draft and free agency, here are the breakdowns of each position group before the new season. Last week, we took a look at the quarterbacks. With the Patriots running back, can they lead the offense once again?

The New England Patriots took a different approach in 2020.

While they were never afraid to run the ball before, the offense was certainly known for its ability to move the ball through the air. With Cam Newton in the fold, that changed immediately. The Patriots became a run-heavy offense last season, ranking third in the league in carries, fourth in rushing yards and sixth in rushing touchdowns. It wasn’t a surprise given the roster makeup, but it was certainly an unconventional approach.

The only two teams with more rushing attempts than New England were Baltimore and Tennessee. Those teams, of course, have superstars Lamar Jackson and Derrick Henry to justify the carries. Right behind the Patriots were the Browns and Saints, who also have star running backs. Continuing the running back by committee approach, they had a good season running the ball despite not having an elite player in the backfield. Or did they? Here’s a look at New England’s depth chart for next season.

New England Patriots Running Back Depth Chart

Starter: Damien Harris

Backup: James White, Rhamondre Stevenson

Reserves/Cut Candidates: Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden

Damien Harris Making the Leap

NeNew England didn’t have anyone close to a 1,000-yard season but had three runners combine 1,732 yards. The player who stood out was second-year player Damien Harris. After battling injuries his first season and a half, Harris finally saw the field the last 10 games of the season, totaling 691 yards on five yards per carry. He made the most of his work on the field and maybe coming into 2021 underrated given his ability.

Rating higher than Henry and Dalvin Cook is pretty good company for Harris. He’ll be out to prove that it wasn’t the case of a 10-game sample size. Harris’ numbers stretched out over a 16-game season would have had him ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. To get the best season out of this Patriot offense they’ll need that production out of the Alabama runner. Harris’ best ability is as a one-cut runner, having big gains on carries like this all season.

Where he’ll need to improve is finishing drives with touchdowns and his work as a receiver. He scored just twice last season on the ground, but a lot of it wasn’t his fault. Harris got the ball just three times inside the five-yard line, with the majority of those carries going to Newton. While the big quarterback will always be a part of the red zone offense, Harris needs to get that touchdown total closer to 10.

While White is going to handle most of the third-down roles, it wouldn’t hurt if Harris can be as productive catching the ball. One issue with New England’s offense is the predictability, with White as the obvious signal of a passing play. Having Harris be able to run simple routes out of the backfield is something they haven’t got out of lead backs. Best case scenario for the Patriots is Harris ending up around 1,300 yards rushing and about 20 catches out of the backfield. With that production, White having his normal workload and the depth, New England could become one of the best running teams in the league.

Rhamondre Stevenson or Sony Michel?

The one debate in the Patriots running back room is whether Sony Michel, one of the heroes of the 2018 Super Bowl run, even makes the roster. Stevenson was taken in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft and figures to have a role in the offense. So does that leave Michel on the outside? New England has always been a team that likes its running back depth. Butt with White returning as the third-down back, Taylor showing flashes and Bolden potentially offering his special team services again, spots are running out for Michel. Michel wasn’t bad in 2020, but between the injuries and the clear upgrade in Harris, it was a difficult year.

New England declined the fifth-year option for Michel, meaning this could be his final year with the team. This opens up a way for Stevenson, who has the intrigued of all of New England. The big runner was great at Oklahoma, reminding a lot of people of fan-favorite LeGarrette Blount.

He’s the kind of running back that defensive backs hate tackling. Stevenson has even shown ability in catching the ball out of the backfield, something Michel struggled with. Stevenson is the intriguing prospect, while Michel is the known quantity. Something tells me youth will win out on this one.

The Big Question: What is the Ceiling of the Running Game?

The offense will decide the entire season for the New England Patriots. They put more emphasis on running the football, which was productive, but in a league increasingly becoming more air raid, is it worth it? The Patriots were ranked 23rd in the NFL in yards per play, first downs, scoring percentage and expected points added by the offense last season. Despite having a defense that has the potential to be elite next season, that level of offensive production in 2021 won’t cut it. The NFL has become an offensive league and New England has to be able to move the ball.

They will commit to running the ball again. Newton will play a big part in the offense in that regard, but it comes to Harris staying healthy. If he can play all 17 games and become an elite running back, the Patriots’ offense will work.

(Photo by: Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports)

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