NFL draft steal: Patriots' Damien Harris proves his value with tough running

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Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Alabama RB Damien Harris

New England Patriots
5-foot-11, 214 pounds
2019 NFL draft: Round 3, No. 87 overall

The 2020 season was the Patriots' worst in two decades. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were gone. Julian Edelman played in a few games before getting hurt and then retiring. The defense was terrible against the run. The Patriots generated few big plays on offense. They finished 7-9, getting outscored at Gillette Stadium at home.

But one of the few brights spots was Harris, who was limited to 10 games because of injuries but who ran for 691 yards and two TDs despite receiving more than 17 carries in a game only once in 2020. His tackle breaking and hard running behind a good offensive line at least gave Patriots fans hope that they had something to build around offensively in 2021.

After a slow start, Harris has emerged as the Patriots' bell-cow back. He uncharacteristically lost two fumbles — something he did seldom at Alabama — and averaged a below-average 3.7 yards per carry in the first five games this season. 

Hard-nosed Patriots running back Damien Harris has led the team's offensive flourish of late. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
Hard-nosed Patriots running back Damien Harris has led the team's offensive flourish of late. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

Had the Patriots not had so few reliable options in the backfield, Harris might have been in jeopardy of losing his role. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick typically has gone away from backs who put the ball on the ground more than once.

But in the three games since, Harris has run for 287 of his 517 yards and four of his six rushing TDs this season, leading the NFL in 20-plus runs with five as the Patriots' offense has heated up noticeably. Additionally, Pro Football Focus grades Harris as the NFL's third-best back this season, behind only Dallas' Tony Pollard and Atlanta's Cordarrellle Patterson (who also spends time at receiver).

If the Patriots are going to make a run at the postseason in the wide-open AFC, Harris will be expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting. His college and NFL teammate, QB Mac Jones, has been one of the more impressive rookie quarterbacks this season, but he'll continue needing help from Harris to spearhead the run game.

“Damien has been a very good player for us," Belichick said recently. "He has done a good job of [maximizing yards].

“He has a ton of respect from every player and coach in this organization, as he should because he’s earned that. That’s not something you get from talking or some kind of false image. You get it from day after day, consistent performance and dedication, and he’s the poster boy for that.”

Why did Damien Harris slip in the draft?

It's not often you see a college backfield feature two first-round picks. That's what Alabama had in 2017 and 2018 with Josh Jacobs, who was drafted 24th overall in 2019 and Najee Harris, who was taken in the same slot in the 2021 NFL draft.

Both have become very good NFL backs. But neither led the Crimson Tide in rushing attempts either of those seasons. In 2017, Jalen Hurts led the way with 155 carries, Damien Harris (no relation to Najee) was second that year with 135 carries, plus 1,000 yards on the nose; in 2018, Damien Harris led all Bama backs with 150 carries, with Jacobs (120) and Najee Harris (117) finishing second and third, respectively, on the team.

It was clear that Nick Saban inherently trusted Damien Harris to be his lead back when the team was grinding down opponents. But Harris' limited receiving ability (52 catches, 407 yards, two TDs in 44 games), so-so straight-line speed (4.57-second 40-yard dash) and lack of make-you-miss wiggle and burst likely limited his mass appeal — especially in a league so centered around the pass.

But where some teams saw limitations, the Patriots viewed opportunity. They've always favored his style of back, and in what would end up Tom Brady's swan-song season in New England, drafting a back such as Harris felt like a smart, against-the-grain move with the future in mind.

Harris was the sixth back selected in the 2019 draft. All five taken ahead of him, including his college teammate Jacobs, have accumulated more rushing yards and TDs. But Harris' recent stretch suggests he has a chance to outlast more than a few of them as NFL producers.

At Alabama, running back Damien Harris used his toughness and tackle-breaking ability to earn carries in a star-studded backfield. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
At Alabama, running back Damien Harris used his toughness and tackle-breaking ability to earn carries in a star-studded backfield. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How we viewed Harris as a prospect

Harris was our No. 91 overall prospect in the 2019 NFL draft class, almost exactly where he was eventually taken. Of course, when you consider the positional value of running back perhaps being lower than most other spots on the field, we certainly underrated him.

From our pre-draft writeup on Harris:

He has a compact build, a strong lower body (very good vertical- and broad-jump numbers at the combine), good balance after contact and enough burst to be a complementary NFL back.

His lack of receiving production (52-407-2 in 54 career games) and lack of return ability might concern teams, but Harris’ good pass-protection ability and low fumble rate make him a reliable three-down option. Think a smaller Jordan Howard, the type of back who was productive his first few seasons with the Chicago Bears in a power-run system.

It was a fairly accurate writeup, we think, although Harris certainly runs with a bit more power and tackle-breaking prowess than Howard, even if Harris' production to date has paled in comparison to what Howard did in his first three seasons.

Harris is limited as a receiver, catching 15 passes for 112 yards in his 20 career outings. He likely never will be a difference maker in that department but occasionally can snag a checkdown or outlet pass as the third or fourth options on plays.

Where here's earned his keep is as a hard-charging, tackle-breaking back between the tackles — and his so-called lack of speed hasn't hurt his ability to break off intermediate and longer runs.

Future forecast

If we're being honest, Harris isn't likely to remain with the Patriots for all that long. Our best guess: this year and next. 

Why? History indicates that the Patriots are likely to get as much as they can from Harris under his rookie contract and then allow someone else to pay him more than they likely are willing to. 

From BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Stevan Ridley to Sony Michel, the Patriots time and time again have moved on from young backs after three to five seasons, squeezing out as much from their talent as possible before moving on from what essentially is a diminishing asset in their minds..

They drafted Harris' possible eventual replacement in 2021 fourth-rounder Rhamondre Stevenson, even if he also has been plagued by an early fumble and a lack of complete coaching trust so far. Harris, however, will be in the final year of his deal in 2022 and could be allowed to walk if Stevenson or another back steps up.

But that doesn't mean Harris isn't an important figure in the Patriots' shorter-term plans. There are some tough AFC battles left on the schedule, including two games against the Buffalo Bills and one each vs. the Browns, Titans and Colts. There also are some lesser run defenses left on the schedule against whom Harris figures to feast.

Harris might never be your classic all-around back. He has his limitations. But what he does, he does well, and there might be no team that's equipped to maximize his value than the Patriots as they try to rebound from their first losing season in 20 years and get back to the postseason.

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