This is the second piece in a series about players of value to add in the offseason. With value in mind, everyone’s thoughts should center around running back Damien Harris of the New England Patriots.
Through the season, speculative trades or even waiver pickups were made in anticipation of the Damien Harris experience…but never was there a time of consistent production. However, that was much less to do with Harris as it was his environment. A quick look at his stats help show his talent: 137 carries for 691 yards at 5 yards per carry is the work of a good running back. Registering only two rushing touchdowns and five receptions are not positive indicators, but these were much less in his control considering he only saw three carries inside the five and seven targets over ten games. The tide is shifting in New England, and as the offseason brings us waves of change, Harris stands to benefit heavily for the Patriots.
A Team With a History of Running the Ball
To the surprise of some, the Patriots hold an identity in their rushing attack. Through the last five seasons, the team has placed in the top ten in a few rushing categories: second in rush attempts per season (471), sixth in rush yards per season (1969), third in rushing touchdowns per season (18). The 2020 Patriots ran the ball very often and looked inefficient, but it was not inconsistent with the team’s history. Even when Tom Brady was leading the offense, the ball was in the running back’s hands as often as this season. There’s no need to expect a change as we head into 2021.
An Offensive Line to Love
Skill players often flood the newsfeeds and minds of every fantasy player, but most of their success cannot be done without the big guys up front. This is especially true for running backs, and there is almost no better offensive line in the league than the unit in New England. According to Football Outsiders, they finished 2020 fourth in power success rate (76%), third in adjusted line yards (4.91), and second in stuffed rate (13.8%) The offensive line gave every running back plenty of opportunity to succeed.
A Defense to Back it All Up
As previously discussed in the article linked above, defenses are very helpful for running backs. Teams wanting to run the ball need to be winning or stay within a few points – if down – to keep their balance. What is tough to see is how good this Patriots defense is after the 2020 season. Similar to the rushing offense, it’s good to take a look back over the previous five seasons: First in total points against per season (296.8), third in overall yards allowed per season (5188.8), and third in average yards per play per season (5.18). After a 2020 season full of opt-outs, including key defensive players safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, it’s to be expected to see this defense return to a high caliber style of play.
After all this is said and done, the remaining piece for Damien Harris’ success is opportunity. This was the plague of all Patriots running backs and what placed the team’s rushing ability in poor public perception.
Throughout the season, five players received 35+ carries and at least one rushing touchdown: James White (35 attempts, two touchdowns), Rex Burkhead (67 attempts, three rushing), Sony Michel (79 attempts, one touchdown), Damien Harris (137 attempts, 2 touchdowns), and Cam Newton (137 attempts, 12 rushing touchdowns).
While he was tied for first in carries on the team this season, his carries were not enough to bring him into consistent fantasy relevance. Newton is anticipated to be leaving the Patriots in the offseason. White and Burkhead are both older, unrestricted free agents entering the offseason. There’s a good reason to consider at least two of these players will not return to the Patriots in 2021. As a result, there will be around 175-200 vacated carries. With Michel and Harris being the two primary backs left on the team, there’s good reason to believe Harris will be the biggest beneficiary. A comparison of Harris’ second year stats with his teammate Sony Michel’s second year in 2019 shows Harris is clearly the better back. So it’s very likely to see Harris receive the bulk of those vacated carries.
Harris vs Michel
|Damien Harris 2020 (10 Gms)||Sony Michel 2019|
|Yards Created per Touch|
Lastly, and perhaps most important, are the rushing touchdowns which were so hard for Harris to receive, as mentioned at the beginning, lacking goal-line touches. With 20 total rushing touchdowns this season, New England was right around their season average of 18 rushing touchdowns since 2016. By the same logic of carries being vacated, we should also see 15 rushing touchdowns ready to be claimed in 2021. I don’t expect Harris to score every one, but having only 10% of the teams rushing touchdowns is by far and away lower than previous lead running backs for the Patriots. In 2019, Michel scored 41% of the teams rushing touchdowns as the lead running back.
To 2021 and Beyond
I am very excited for the opportunity Harris will see in 2021, and even more so at his current value. The Patriots rushing offense has not been a very exciting topic in the past few seasons, perhaps since LaGarrette Blount’s 2016 season. And with 2020 still fresh in everyone’s mind, this makes for a good time to strike now on a trade for Harris.
If you’re not totally convinced and you need just a little more reason to push send on that trade, check out this video I have on Damien Harris. With a little whiskey and coke, I give more insight as to how simple his success is to achieve.
As always thanks for reading, follow me on Twitter @A_I_R__D_J for more great content!