Running backs are an interesting position in the NFL draft, as they have lost so much value in recent years.
This is why it came as a major surprise to see the Patriots select Sony Michel in the first round last year, and even more surprising when they selected Damien Harris in the third round this year.
Going into the draft running back wasn’t viewed as much of a need, but with the way the draft played out and the status of the Patriots backfield, the pick actually makes some sense.
The Patriots certainly didn’t go into the draft planning on selecting a running back, especially at the top, but when they were on the clock at No. 87 overall and the Alabama product was still available, they had little choice but to take him.
“I would say that's a situation relative to whatever else you're looking at, he falls into the good football player category that's been consistently productive over the course of however many years,” director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “Look, everybody knows what we think about the Alabama program and how highly regarded it is and the mutual respect that Bill and Nick [Saban] have for one another. But this is a player who over the course of the last three years basically has averaged 1,000 yards in the SEC and they have a lot of good backs.”
Harris had a first-round grade by some teams and while it’s not clear how high the Patriots had him, it would appear they had him graded higher than in the third round. And when a player is still available with that much value, the Patriots are a team not to pass it up.
Some may not realize it, but Harris was a three-year starter at Alabama and finished with over 3,000 yards in his four years at the school, including 1,000-yard seasons in 2016 and 2017. It’s also notable he doesn’t have the wear and tear of other top backs coming out in the draft as he shared a backfield with many talented backs, some now in the NFL.
In his last three seasons, Harris has 431 carries, while in comparison Michel has 588 (his final two seasons at Georgia and then rookie season in New England). There’s some concern with Michel’s knees being able hold up over multiple years in the NFL, and he’s not built to carry the ball 280 times a year like he did last season.
Also, the Patriots’ running back situation also may not have been as good as first thought.
Remember the few games in the middle of the season last year where Cordarrelle Patterson was the main running back due to injuries to Michel and Rex Burkhead? More depth was needed and Harris can take some of the pressure off of those two. James White is a terrific third-down back, but he’s at his best when catching the ball out of the backfield, not carrying the ball upwards of 10 times in between the tackles.
Another thing is the team struggled in short-yardage all year, and Harris, at 215 pounds, could be an answer in that area.
Not to mention the Patriots went to a more of a run-heavy offense in the playoffs and was one of the main reasons why they won the Super Bowl.
The addition of Harris gives the Patriots a depth chart of Michel, Burkhead, Harris, White and Brandon Bolden. Keeping five running backs on the roster has been done before, and seems like it will happen again. Having five backs is not a problem — one may just have to be inactive every game.
It also sets the team up nicely for the future.
If he stays healthy, Michel seems primed for a solid next few seasons, and if Harris pans out as many expect him to, the Patriots could have one of the best running back duos in the league over the next couple seasons with both on rookie contracts. Since Michel was selected in the first round, if his fifth-year option is picked up, he and Harris would become free agents at the same time.
While it’s easy to knock the Harris pick, there are reasons why it was made and if he produces like many expect him to, a few years down the line it could be highly praised.