Things have been changing in New England.
Things are always changing in New England, of course. Bill Belichick is inherently a coach of change, adjusting his play-calling and scheme not only to the personnel he has in any given year, but the opponent he faces on any given week. But the offense for the Patriots last year was about as dicey as it has gotten in the Belichick era, and critically, was the last that quarterback Tom Brady ever led for him. With newly-acquired weapons at wide receiver (N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu), tight end (Dalton Keene, Devin Asiasi), and Dante Scarnecchia no longer in the coaching room—as well as that man Cam Newton in at quarterback—a radical shift in New England is inevitable.
One thing on the New England offense is frighteningly familiar: the uncertainty in the backfield. Currently rostered at running back for the Patriots are journeyman veteran Lamar Miller, passing game mainstay James White, 2018 first-rounder Sony Michel, 2019 third-rounder Damien Harris, and Rex Burkhead! He’s still around.
Who’s the lead back here? History tells us it’s Michel. Miller is on PUP with an ACL injury he sustained last year, and figures to start the season there. White and Burkhead are definitely sticking on the roster as pass-catchers, though only White has ever carried the ball more than 100 times in a season. Over the last two years, both have taken a backseat to Michel, who has 200 carries in each of the last two seasons—his 456 carries over the last two years is 10th in the league, despite the fact that he’s missed three games on that timespan.
But Michel took the practice field for the first time in 2020 on Wednesday, when he was activated off the PUP list. In each of his first two seasons, Michel was a question mark coming into Week 1. While he looked spry in camp on Wednesday, he’s already lost ground on the starting job to Harris.
In reality, Michel already started to lose ground with his shaky play in 2019, but Harris never really saw significant snaps last season. The Patriots coaching staff claimed it had nothing to do with Harris’ production as a rookie—they just wanted to keep the veterans on the field. Given what Harris has done in training camp thus far, it will be hard to justify playing any of the vets over him.
Reports on Harris are glowing. He’s catching the ball well, blocking well in drills, and running with violence. Going back to his time at Alabama, Harris was a no-nonsense runner who did very little flashy stuff—nor had the athletic ability to be a highlight reel player—but regularly maximized his touches, won through first contact, and maximized his blockers. For as long as he took snaps at Alabama, he seemed like a future pro and, plainly, a future Patriot.
So he was, and now that readiness is evident during a camp in which Miller and Michel weren’t available to bite into his snaps. The question now: will a healthy Michel relegate Harris to the bench, or can Harris legitimately bite into Michel’s snaps?
For the latter, it’s possible. Michel is the only running back in the last decade for Belichick to produce back-to-back 200-carry seasons—LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis all had one-off seasons of bell-cow usage. It doesn’t track that Belichick would give Michel another year of lion’s share of touches, especially when you consider that his production has been only average on those carries. Even if Harris himself is an average ball-carrier, rotating Michel and Harris on a per-game basis is a far more Belichickian approach.
Camp reports are all we have to go on for now—preseason carries for Harris are a no-go, and there’s no way Belichick provides a clear answer on Michel’s health or Harris’ role. But in a year in which much of the Patriots’ offense is up in the air, we should project Michel’s 200 carries are also up for grabs, and the Belichick offense tends toward a committee. To protect Michel’s health, introduce competition in the backfield, and keep defenses guessing, expect Harris to take on a 1B role this year, as the secondary runner and a part of the third-down rotation in New England.