The running back position is often a tale of extremes in dynasty leagues. One on hand, we have the young, highly coveted players at the position. They grow exponentially more expensive to acquire with every impressive outing. On the other hand are the older veterans at the position. Their best days are likely behind them, and fantasy managers avoid them like the plague. With savvy managers often looking to sell off aging backs a year too early rather than a year too late, it leaves open a market middle-ground of running backs worth buying low on. One such rusher I will discuss is the Patriots’ Damien Harris.
This middle group littered with options like Atlanta’s Mike Davis and Miami’s Myles Gaskin. Players who had fantasy managers biting their nails in nervousness over as the NFL Draft rambled on. But among these players, one stands out from the pack. Teams needing running back depth should put their target on Damien Harris.
Per Pro Football Reference, in the ten games Harris was active during the 2020 season, he received double-digit carries in all but one of them. The Patriots finished third in rushing attempts and fourth in rushing yards in the 2020 season. The team will likely look to run the ball with the same ferocity in 2021 with uncertainty looming at quarterback. However, an inevitable switch to rookie-signal caller Mac Jones is coming at some point. The result will be a focus on running the ball effectively.
The team selected Oklahoma running back Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, look for Stevenson to impact the future of former first-round running back Sony Michel more so than Harris. Stevenson’s track record of special teams’ play could make Michel expendable since Michel has never provided much in that respect. James White will retain his role as the receiving threat out of the backfield, but Harris should see plenty of opportunities between the 20s. The volume should be there for both Harris and Stevenson to remain relevant if Michel is released before the season starts.
While Harris won’t ever be mistaken for a track star at the position, he has enough juice to see yet another uptick in usage during 2021. His breakaway run rate of 5.1% was good for 16th in the NFL. The statistics paint the story of a consistent runner who deserves an increased opportunity to run the ball. Unfortunately, he won’t receive much receiving work due to the presence of White. He could also suffer from losing opportunities at the goal line if Newton does remain as the starting quarterback in 2021 (he only had two goal-line carries during 2020). Stevenson also figures to see opportunities of his own at the goal-line if he continues to remind coaches of former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. If Harris can stay healthy and with increased opportunity, he’s efficient enough to maintain weekly fantasy relevance.
The case to be made is not about Harris vaulting himself into the top-12. It’s a near certainty that he won’t finish among the elite options at the position during the 2021 season. The more significant point is that running back depth is invaluable to rosters contending for a championship. For a fantasy team built around a strong group of wide receivers or zero-RB strategy, Harris is the perfect piece to try and acquire. The opportunity he is likely to receive is significantly more valuable than what it will cost to acquire him in a trade.
According to Dynasty Trade Calculator, the cost to acquire Harris is roughly two third-round 2021 rookie draft picks. This is not an effort to minimize the value of third-round draft picks and beyond. If you have a roster built to make a run for a championship this season, Harris quickly can provide more immediate value than the likes of the players selected in round three of rookie drafts.
Of the backs currently being selected in the third round of rookie drafts, Stevenson and Carolinas Chuba Hubbard look primed to see the most work in their rookie seasons. Still, neither option seems likely to see the workload Harris projects to receive.
2021 is set to be a career year for Harris. The lack of receiving work is not ideal, and the potential to lose touchdowns can undoubtedly be frustrating. However, if he can maintain the same efficiency level, he can eclipse 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his young career. If we extrapolate his averages from last season over 17 games in 2021 he would be on pace for over 230 carries and over 1,100 rushing yards — a top-five finish for rushing yards in 2020. As a result, he stands a solid chance to finish inside as a top-24 RB in 2021.
Drafted as the RB35 in startups throughout the month of May, Harris is being valued at his floor, not his ceiling.
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