There were several second-year players who many were looking to this summer to see the Year 1 to Year 2 jump.
Jarrett Stidham and N’Keal Harry were the two big games that came to mind, but the second-year player who has performed the most this summer is unquestionably running back Damien Harris.
The Alabama product who the Patriots selected in the third round has been one of the best players on the entire Patriots offense through a week of padded practices. He’s seen plenty of opportunities with Brandon Bolden opting out and then Sony Michel and Lamar Miller being on PUP, but he’s made the absolute most of them.
If the season were to start this week, there wouldn’t be much doubt that Harris would be RB1 based on what we’ve seen so far.
“He’s a smart player and he has a lot of skills that I think we’ll be able to utilize,” Bill Belichick said last week. “He’s had an opportunity to get quite a few reps here in the work that we’ve done to this point, so I think that’s helped him, but he seems like he’s in good shape and ready to go. Looking forward to seeing him.”
Harris was no slouch at Alabama as he ran for over 1,000 yards in 2016 and 2017 and then had 876 yards his senior year. The biggest difference in his senior year was he recorded 22 receptions for 204 yards. He’s been able to show that skill as well over the last week-plus, which included a tremendous one-handed grab in one recent session.
When it comes to Michel, the Patriots’ lead back the last two seasons, the book on him is that he generally only gets what the line gives him. Case in point, the longest run in his career is 34 yards and last year it was just 26 yards. Being a first-round pick, Michel should be able to make some plays on his own and break a long run every now and then.
Meanwhile, over the last few sessions we’ve seen some moves, specifically cuts from Harris that we’ve never seen from Michel. While Harris only appeared in two games last season, that will certainly not be the case this season.
When it comes to the offense as a whole, the emergence of Harris as a lead back could be a big development.
Based on what we’ve seen over the first week or so of training camp sessions, the offense will look a lot different than it has the last 20 or so years with Tom Brady at quarterback. Not only are there some plays been designed to best suit Cam Newton, but it also seems like there will be an effort to get the running backs more involved.
If that is in fact the case, having Harris as the No. 1 back would be a good thing. The Patriots love versatility at the position, but Michel has just 19 career receptions in 29 games. Having Harris on the field would give Josh McDaniels a number of different options in terms of what plays he can call. With Michel on the field, it would almost have to be a running play.
This would help the offense as a whole with being more unpredictable, which it already will be with Newton at quarterback compared to with Brady. Opposing defenses will need to prepare for a few different options on each play and if Harris is the No. 1 back there will be even more things a defense would need to prepare for.
Without Brady, the Patriots running game will play more of a role in 2020 and if Harris continues to impress into the regular season, the offense could be even more successful than ever imagined.