As the Patriots run through training camp, the star — according to what little information the beat writers are allowed to reveal — has been second year running back Damien Harris. The 2019 third round pick had just four carries in last year’s regular season, but evidently has performed jaw-droppingly well so far in training camp. In a nutshell, that’s great news, but it also makes the Patriots running back situation all the more confusing.
It was already going to be hard for Harris to find snaps while sitting on a depth chart with James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead and that was before New England went out and signed former Pro Bowler Lamar Miller and threw him into the mix. Not to mention undrafted free agent JJ Taylor, who’s already drawing comparisons to Dion Lewis.
Now, this isn’t to say Harris can’t emerge as the lead back over all those other players and it isn’t to say that depth is a bad thing. What it does mean, however, is someone has to be the odd man out. In fact, more than someone. A few of these backs will get a workload short of what they might be used to. It’s hard to imagine that will be James White, who’s proven to be one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL over the last few seasons and if Harris has truly emerged as a top option, that means Michel, Burkhead and Miller can all expect a lot of time sitting on the bench with Taylor almost being a guaranteed cut before the start of the regular season. That’s not because of any lack of talent on his end, but because there are too many other players at his position on the roster.
The most likely candidate to by cut alongside Taylor is Lamar Miller. Cutting Michel, being a recent first round pick, would cost New England significantly more in dead money than Miller. Meanwhile, Burkhead just reworked his contract this past offseason. The only problem is Miller might be the most talented of the three. You see where this starts to get hard to sort out?
New England could choose to hold onto all five, with depth at the position being heralded as a priority amid the ongoing pandemic. However, that’s true of all positions. At the end of camp, you still only have 53 roster spots and keeping all of these guys hinders New England at other positions. Even still, finding a spot for them on the roster is only half the problem.
Sony Michel came up just short of 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons. He certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype he had coming out of college, but he hasn’t been a complete failure. Are the Patriots really going to push him down to third on the depth chart, ostensibly giving up on him already? If they do, then the talk of “bust” and “wasted pick” will really start and it’ll be hard for anyone to refute.
On top of that, are Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels going to be willing to cut Rex Burkhead’s snaps down to almost exclusively special teams — barring injuries — after he finished first among New England running backs in yards per rush in 2019? Burkhead played just ~23% of the offensive snaps last year, with Michel at 36.5%, White at 42.5% and Brandon Bolden — who has opted out of the season — at 8%. Harris was at less than 0.5%. If we assume New England plans on playing running backs just as much in 2020, how will they divvy that up between the four rollovers and Lamar Miller this year?
If the Damien Harris hype is real, while it’s certainly a good outcome, it presents more questions for the Patriots than answers. Last year was “three’s company” with Michel, White and Burkhead. This year is a real mess of options. That can be a good thing, but it also means a lot of wasted money for talent that’s not seeing the field, perhaps a few wasted picks and a few bruised egos. The Patriots will have to pick their poison in regards to how they parse out their running back depth chart. It’s a real Sophie’s choice. Or Bill’s choice, in this case.
Photo: (Eric Hartline – USA Today / Steven Ryan – Getty Images / Steven Senne – AP Photo / Michael Wyke – AP Photo)