In the world of fantasy football, the words opportunity and talent are what you might call, “distant cousins” to each other. If a player is immensely talented, then he will see the football field sooner rather than later. There is just no way that a coach can contain a talented player for long, especially if he is playing behind a lackluster starter. Conversely, if a player that doesn’t check off all of the boxes in the talent and skills department but gets an opportunity to start and then proceeds to run away with the job and dominate, a coach has no choice but to play him as well, as he is getting the job done.
One player that I feel falls into both categories is Patriot’s third-year running back Damien Harris.
Harris was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He had a successful collegiate career at the University of Alabama, or what I like to refer to as the unofficial 33rd NFL team. He had back-to-back 1000+ yd. seasons in 2016 and 2017 and came up just shy of a 3rd in his senior season. He also played in 3 National Championship games and won 2. Not bad for a collegiate career. Then, after minimal playing time as a rookie, he saw the field more in 2020 and improved drastically, and recorded 691 yards on 137 carries, averaging a healthy 5.0 YPC. Now he enters his 3rd season as the apparent starter with the hype and talks of a potential breakout on the horizon.
I hate to be the guy to throw cold water on that projection… but I’m going to throw cold water on that projection.
One reason I’m not overly enthusiastic about a Harris breakout is the coach he plays for. Fantasy footballers worldwide know that relying on a Bill Belichick-coached Running back is a dangerous roll of the dice. It would not surprise me if Belichick has a raffle drawing to see which will lead his team in carries on any given week. You see, the Patriots are not a team that features one prominent rusher for the course of a season. They truly use an RBBC (Running back by committee). In the 21 years, Bill Belichick has served as the team’s head coach, only 5 players have run for 1000 or more yards:
Corey Dillon (2004) 1635 yards, 12 Touchdowns
Stevan Ridley (2012) 1263 yards, 12 Touchdowns
Legarrette Blount (2016) 1161 yards, 18 Touchdowns
Antowain Smith (2001) 1157 yards, 12 Touchdowns
BenJarvus Green Ellis (2010) 1008 yards, 13 Touchdowns
Now those appear as rather gaudy numbers, especially when you look in the touchdown department. However, when you look at the fact that only 5 players have eclipsed that mark in 20 years under Belichick’s watch, it gives me pause when looking at a guy like Harris. (Based on the numbers above though, if you do start as RB for the Patriots you may have plenty of opportunities at the goal line, which more than makes up for the lack of yards.) Nevertheless, Coach Belichick’s unpredictability with his backfield is just way too dicey for me to look at investing a high draft pick there. I mean, for crying out loud he has his own fantasy football-ism named after him (BELI-TRICKS) If that doesn’t tell you the story, I don’t know what does. Remember Jonas Gray in 2014? I sure do, because I had him for his one game where he was a star; He ran for 200 yards and scored 4 times against the Colts on a Primetime Sunday Night game. I won my matchup that week and I thought I had scored the biggest pickup of the year and he would lead me to a championship. Then, I never heard from him again after that game. I’m not even sure he got another carry that season. (And in case you were wondering, I missed the playoffs.)
Then, Harris will have to share carries in the backfield. Sony Michel will be returning and though he battled injuries throughout the season and even dealt with a bout of COVID-19, he did record 449 yards on 79 carries, which is an excellent 5.7 YPC average. Michel’s future with the team is uncertain though, as they declined his option and will make him a free agent after the season. Even though Rex Burkhead is gone, James White is still there and holds a valuable spot in that offense as the 3rd down back and receiving specialist. This is key as Harris, talented he may be, is not a receiving threat. The team also drafted bulldozing Running back Rhamondre Stevenson who is currently on the NFI List but could factor into the carry rotation as the season wears on.
The Patriot’s running back situation has been one that has been unreliable more than fantasy footballers would like for a long time now. It’s one that I have almost no faith in because Bill Belichick is one of those coaches who operates under the “situational football” and “do what’s best for the team” mantra. In that situation, that means sitting down with a guy who had a career game or who is on a roll, he will not hesitate to do so. Now, Harris will have value because he will be likely open the season as a starter. His talent will also probably lead him to have a handful of 100-yard rushing games or close to it. But if you are looking for him to be a dominant, lead back that will light up the scoreboard and be a championship catalyst on your fantasy team… Nah. If you invest in him before Round 7 as anything more than a mid-level RB2, my money will be on you being disappointed. The only saving grace might be a goal-line preference towards him, but even that could be a gamble as the team still has goal-line vulture Cam Newton.
2020 FINAL STATS: 137 carries, 691 yards, 2 Touchdowns; 5 receptions 52 yards
2021 PROJECTIONS: 150-200 carries, 850-950 yards, 7-9 Touchdowns; 20-25 receptions, 100-200 yards, 1 Touchdown