FOXBORO — The Patriots have a bit of a first-world problem on their hands when it comes to constructing their roster: They have too many running backs.
It's really not a problem, at all, first-world or otherwise. But having five backs -- all of whom have shown they are deserving of playing time dating back to the start of training camp -- will force the Patriots to show their hand in terms of how they value players not only at that position but at others.
Damien Harris is eligible to return off of injured reserve to play in New England's Week 4 game in Kansas City. If moved to the active roster, he'd join Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White and J.J. Taylor.
The Patriots played Week 3 without both Harris and White. Michel, Burkhead and Taylor all went off to varying degrees. Michel appears to have suffered a quad injury in the game and is now listed on the injury report, but he's been present and participating at both Patriots practices this week.
Do the Patriots have the room to add Harris while also keeping Michel, White, Burkhead and Taylor in uniform?
"Yeah, you just never know how that’s going to work out," Bill Belichick said earlier this week. "A couple years ago, we had good depth at running back and then we ended up playing a receiver [editor's note: Cordarrelle Patterson was their top back for a time in 2018] at running back and everything else, and so it just all diminished in a hurry.
"That might not be the case here going forward, we might have good depth there, and we’ll just try to do the best that we can in terms of game-planning and creating opportunities and personnel groups and plays or whatever it is to try to attack our opponents. But, I think you’ve got to be careful about changing your whole offense just to work a couple guys into the lineup if that’s going to detract from something else. So, there’s a balance there."
That approach might not bode well for Harris, who would have to be worked into the lineup after the Patriots ran for 250 yards against the Raiders in Week 3. Yet at the same time, the Patriots are itching to see what Harris can do after he had an eye-opening training camp. He was decisive in his cuts and looked to have an extra gear that fellow 200-plus-pound back Michel does not.
"I'm really excited -- excited about having Damien back if we can get him back," running backs coach Ivan Fears said this week. "I think we're all kind of anxious to see what he will do when it's truly go time.
"Everything he's shown has been outstanding. He was having a great training camp, so it was kind of unfortunate to get a little finger injury before the opening game. But yeah, we're all kind of on pins and needles on this one. We'd like to see where he's going to be and what he's going to do."
So should Belichick and Nick Caserio shuffle the roster to work in their 2019 third-round draft choice? They have options.
Special-teamer Cody Davis is dealing with an injury that has kept him away from practice for two days. Placing him on injured reserve -- forcing him to miss a minimum of three games -- could be in play. That would potentially open up a spot for Harris.
If the Patriots want to activate receiver Gunner Olszewski off of IR as well, then perhaps a recent game-day inactive player like corner Myles Bryant could be released and re-signed to the practice squad if not claimed on waivers. Up to four practice-squad players can be protected by teams each week, preventing them from being signed to active rosters elsewhere -- though the Patriots have yet to protect a p-squad player this season.
But what if releasing Bryant (exposing him to the waiver process) or placing Davis on IR (keeping a top special-teamer off the field for several weeks) aren't palatable options?
The team could theoretically move Michel to IR if his quad injury is significant. Harris could slide into Michel's early-down role, and Michel would have three weeks to recuperate. But Michel is coming off of what was arguably his best game as a pro, contributing not only as a runner, but as a receiver and pass-protector as well.
Taylor, an undrafted rookie, could be released with the intention of re-signing him to the practice squad. But exposing him to waivers, after solid performances through three weeks, could end with him being claimed by another club. Seems like a risky move with a player the Patriots believe has real promise.
"We're very happy with J.J.'s growth and development," Fears said. "We only look forward to him getting better and better. He's kind of an exciting guy, and we're looking forward to seeing what he really does as he goes along here."
Perhaps the Davis injury makes the decision easy. Send him to IR, activate Harris.
But there's no guarantee Harris is the first choice to activate given the depth the Patriots have at running back. New England temporarily promoted wideout Isaiah Zuber last week, an indication that they'd like to have one more available body at that position. That could mean if there's only space for one activation this week, it goes to Olszewski.
Add it all up, and perhaps Belichick's quote this week was prescient. "I think you’ve got to be careful about changing your whole offense just to work a couple guys into the lineup if that’s going to detract from something else."
The easiest move? And maybe the most prudent? Keep Harris on injured reserve. For now. Running back rooms don't tend to remain as healthy as New England's is right now. By waiting a week or two, a difficult roster choice could be made easier.
Though getting a glimpse of what Harris can do against a porous Chiefs run defense (30th in rush defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders) is nice and all, this group did run for over 200 yards last week. Adding another body to the mix might be forcing something that doesn't need to be forced.
"Things sort of take care of themselves when it comes to who's available and who's not available, or who's performing who's not performing," Fears said. "So it's a combination of both -- you've got to perform, you've got to perform in practice, and we take the best of the lot if everybody happens to be available. Right now, we're still waiting to get the final word on whether we have everybody ready to go. Believe me, it's a good problem to have. I like it."