FOXBORO — During Monday's practice on the fields behind Gillette Stadium, Damien Harris caught a pass short over the middle from Cam Newton.
Later in a hurry-up drill he caught another. Then another. Then another. All from Newton. He finished the no-huddle session having reeled in four of Newton's six passes.
The running back depth chart has been thinned with both Sony Michel and Lamar Miller beginning camp on the physically unable to perform list. So Harris, James White, Rex Burkhead and undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor have all had reps heaped upon them. But the fact that Harris was as involved in the passing game — and that he turned in a one-handed catch during a goal-line period Tuesday — was eye-opening.
Particularly after he sat for almost the entirety of his rookie season, taking just four carries for 12 total yards. And particularly since he looked like Michel's backup from the time he was drafted. Taken in the third round in 2019, he appeared to be insurance against another Michel injury.
What does that have to do with the passing game? That's not Michel's territory. As a rookie, the Patriots ran with Michel on the field 76 percent of the time, more than any regularly-used back in the NFL. In his second season, Michel was slightly less predictable as the Patriots ran the ball on 66 percent of his snaps. Still, he offered little as a pass-catcher, bringing in just 12 passes on 20 targets for 94 yards.
If Harris could provide some of the same power running that Michel has shown at times, and add to that a receiving threat? He'd provide real value to the Patriots offense.
Though White occasionally will take a handoff between the tackles, Burkhead has in recent years been the team's true lone dual-threat runner. Adding another back with that kind of skill set could help protect against a Burkhead injury (17 games missed the last three seasons) and make the Patriots offense a little more unpredictable.
Of course, for the 5-foot-11, 213-pounder to be trusted in the passing game, he'll have to be able to pass protect. He said on Tuesday that he feels comfortable in that regard. At Alabama under Nick Saban, Harris did his fair share of contributing to the passing offense, catching 52 passes over four years, including 22 as a senior.
"I feel comfortable," he said. "Obviously, there's still room for improvement. That'll be something along with all of the other things I'll work on day in and day out. It's just a part of it. There's not any part of your game that you can't improve on. That's one of the many things that every single day I go out there with the mindset to get better at."
After a season of biding his time, Harris has a chance to show what he can do this week with reps aplenty. If he can end up as a legitimate passing-game option, that could do a world of good for his odds at playing time — and it could be a boon for a Patriots offense that values versatility.