Damien Harris

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots finished the regular season ranked 25th in rushing (3.8 yards per carry), but don't put that all on the humans carrying the football.

As we detailed late last week, the run-blocking work of the offensive line left plenty to be desired in 2019, making some of the overall rushing numbers look paltry in comparison to the tail end of the 2018 season when the Patriots embraced more of a smash-mouth identity. 

Still, the numbers were eye-opening. Rex Burkhead was the only regularly-used Patriots running back who cracked 4.0 yards per carry (4.6), while Sony Michel (3.7) showed a lack of North-South aggression at times that resulted in more than his fair share of stuffed runs.

On a positive note for this group, two of the team's best receivers — Burkhead and James White — came out of the running back room, and they were relatively healthy for the majority of the year.

What's in store for this unit in 2020? More of the same since every back from the 2019 roster is scheduled to be back next season? Will we see some fresh faces in new roles? Let's do some digging.

Breaking down the current roster

Sony Michel: Michel wasn't bad in first-and-10 situations. He had a 49 percent success rate (7th among backs with at least 100 such carries in 2019) and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which tied him with Todd Gurley and Dalvin Cook. Even in short-yardage spots, his numbers were fine. He converted on third-and-one or third-and-two at a 73 percent clip, which was 10th in football. He was hit often enough at the line of scrimmage that even running backs coach Ivan Fears told reporters during the season that his second-year back had to get downhill quicker, and Michel was too often a detriment in the passing game. But after getting through the season healthy, he's likely to be the team's top between-the-tackles option again in the third year of his rookie deal.

James White: Still one of the best receiving backs in the league — and among the most productive receiving backs of the last decade, when you break down the numbers — White was third in the NFL among backs in receiving yardage (646 yards), sixth in receptions (72) and tied for second in receiving touchdowns (5). He had half the number of drops (2) that Michel did ... and on 71 fewer targets (90). He's going into a contract year in 2020.

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Rex Burkhead: The issue with Burkhead has long been injuries, and he missed three more games in 2019 due to injury. But keeping him on a pitch count — he hit 20 snaps only five times in 14 games — helped make him the team's most productive back on a per-play basis. He ranked fifth in the league among backs with at least 250 snaps with a 10.3 yards-per-reception figure. He ranked 12th in football in terms of yards per rushing attempt (4.6), tied with Saquon Barkley. Like White, he's going into the final year of his deal in New England.

Damien Harris: The 2019 third-rounder out of Alabama took a "redshirt" year as a rookie. He saw just four snaps all season, all of them in a Week 7 blowout of the Jets. Fears noted throughout the season that he liked the progress Harris was making, but there simply wasn't a game-day roster spot for him most weeks because most others at the position were healthy. "You can't play them all," Fears said in October. Should Michel miss any time moving forward, Harris would likely be the "next man up." Perhaps, if the team thinks Harris provides more juice as an early-down runner, he could challenge Michel for work in that role. 

Brandon Bolden: The special-teams ace played primarily in the kicking game in 2019, but he did take 15 carries for 68 yards (a 4.5 yards-per-carry average). His speed, even in his eighth season, was good enough to serve as a consistent threat on end-around runs. He's headed into the last year of his contract in 2020.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Kenyan Drake: With every Patriots back scheduled to return in 2020, this seems like a low-priority position group to address via free agency. But Drake would be an all-purpose back who might have Bill Belichick licking his chops. The Patriots saw him twice a year for three years as a member of the Dolphins. Last season, he went from being a ho-hum performer behind a bad offensive line in Miami to one of the most explosive backs in the league in a new scheme in Arizona. He might cost more than $5 million per year as a free agent, though, and so he may be too pricey for a team like the Patriots, who aren't exactly flush with cap space.

Devontae Booker: Booker would certainly be a more cost-effective option if the Patriots were looking for a player with some all-purpose potential. That's how he was billed coming out of Utah in 2016 — the Patriots brought him in for a visit before the draft — but that potential was never realized in Denver where he became a pure special-teamer, buried behind running back Phillip Lindsay, in his fourth year. Any chance he's a buy-low option who could flourish with a little more opportunity?

Jordan Howard: If it's a big back the Patriots are after — and that seems unlikely with Michel and Harris sitting there on the roster — then Howard is among the biggest names available who'd make some sense for the Patriots. Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon are going to be out of the team's price range, in all likelihood, but Howard could potentially help solve the team's short-yardage issues at a fraction of the cost. Their problems down by the goal line helped get them beat by the Titans in the Wild Card Round. 

Carlos Hyde: With 1,000 yards in 2019 — the first such season of his career — Hyde might be looking to go somewhere where he's considered the top guy at the position. That likely won't be in New England. The 230-pounder is about to be in his 30-year-old season.

Chris Thompson: With both James White and Rex Burkhead looking at the final years of their respective contracts, the Patriots might be after a receiving back this offseason. Thompson has quietly produced as an effective pass-catcher when healthy; he's two years removed from a 500-yard receiving season when in 2017 he averaged 13.1 yards per catch. The seven-year vet has some return experience, and after several seasons marred by injury for a moribund franchise in Washington, he may be relatively inexpensive on the open market.

Ty Montgomery: A different route to take for Belichick if it's a pass-catcher he's after. Montgomery would represent an interesting shift at the position. Instead of having a running back serve as a quality receiver — like Kevin Faulk or James White — why not just get a receiver to play running back? That's Montgomery, who came into the league as a wideout with the Packers but has changed positions and provided some passing-game punch in stops with the Ravens and Jets. He had only 45 touches last year in New York, averaging 4.28 yards per, so the idea of a receiver playing running back in today's NFL might actually be more enticing than Montgomery's talent on its own. He's an experienced kick-returner but has not returned a punt in his career.

Patriots downgrade S Patrick Chung, RB Damien Harris to out for Eagles game

Patriots downgrade S Patrick Chung, RB Damien Harris to out for Eagles game

The Patriots have downgraded safety Patrick Chung and running back Damien Harris from questionable to out for the game Sunday against the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Chung has had heel and chest injuries but did play in the Pats' last game before their bye week, the Nov. 3 loss to the Ravens. Harris appeared on the injury report for the first time on Friday with a hamstring issue. The rookie third-round pick from Alabama has only been active for two games this season.

The loss of Chung could impact the Patriots most in their coverage of Eagles tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Taking on tight ends is something Chung has excelled at. 

ESPN Mike Reiss reports that Patriots tight end Matt LaCosse, out with a knee injury since Oct. 10, did travel with the team to Philly so he will likely be active for the game.

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Damien Harris' low usage par for the course in the Belichick Era

Damien Harris' low usage par for the course in the Belichick Era

N'Keal Harry isn't the only high-profile rookie on the Patriots offense struggling to find a role.

While Harry, the team's first-round pick, has received more attention thus far, another highly-touted prospect, third-round pick Damien Harris, hasn't been able to get on the field much either.

Despite the mediocre performance of the team's running game, Harris has only dressed for two games through the bye week. He has just four carries for 12 yards. And all of those opportunities came in garbage time of the team's blowout win over the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.

On the surface, this may be surprising. After all, Harris had two 1,000-yard seasons at Alabama and totaled 20 touchdowns over the course of his last two seasons. He was considered to be one of the best running backs available in the 2019 NFL Draft. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah had him ranked as the 66th-best player in the class and fourth-overall among running backs.

And just look at some of his dominant plays from his college days.

So why aren't the Patriots playing him much? The answer is fairly simple.

It's par for the course for Bill Belichick to give non-first-round running backs a year to get acclimated to the NFL.

Since 2011, Belichick and the Patriots have drafted four running backs outside of the first round. They are Harris (2019), James White (2014), Shane Vereen (2011), and Stevan Ridley (2011).

We already dove into Harris' first-year stats so far, and they are pretty much non-existent. But the other runners on this list weren't very productive as rookies either.

Ridley was the best of the bunch, playing in all 16 games during his rookie season and logging 441 yards and a score on 87 carries. He served as an early-downs option in the team's backfield-by-committee approach, splitting time with the likes of Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

However, neither Vereen nor White did much at all as rookies. They played in five and three games respectively and posted very similar yardage totals (Vereen had 15 touches for 57 yards while White had 14 for 51). But for the most part, each was relegated to the inactives list on gameday.

Though they didn't do much as rookies, both Vereen and White would eventually find their strides with the Patriots and become key role players for the squad. So too would Ridley.

White, in particular, has developed well, and he is currently one of the best receiving backs in the NFL. He even made a case to be the Super Bowl 52 MVP after his record-breaking performance helped to key the team's comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.

Harris figures to follow a similar path to these three. He'll see a little work as a rookie and if he develops, he could easily become an impactful player in the Patriots' offense. It just may not be this year.

Of course, Harris could end up getting a chance to prove himself if the running game continues to sputter. But it's not a major surprise that he hasn't done much yet. Belichick simply likes to take time to develop his running backs, so he's choosing to trust the more veteran options on New England's roster.

Harris is patiently awaiting his opportunity, and it will eventually come. Just don't be surprised if his big chance doesn't arrive until his second season in the NFL.

PERRY: How the Patriots can fix their problems during the bye week>>>

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