Bill Belichick is the ultimate problem solver.
Can’t covers receivers one-on-one without Stephon Gilmore? Switch from man to zone.
Can’t trust your right tackle to get the job done? Move Michael Onwenu from left guard to his more natural position.
Can’t control the line of scrimmage? Get Christian Barmore on the field instead of Deatrich Wise.
The greatest coach in NFL history solved each of those issues already this season. And while the New England Patriots definitely have room to improve, there’s no doubt they’re a much more dangerous team than they were in early October.
Ironically, though, a new problem has popped up during the midst of their five-game winning streak that’s actually not bad at all. However, while Belichick currently has a good problem on his hands, it could become complicated and expensive to solve.
After all, it’s entirely fair to wonder how the Patriots will handle the running back position moving forward.
With a rookie quarterback leading the huddle, the six-time Super Bowl champions have unsurprisingly placed a heavy emphasis on pounding the rock. Damien Harris, Mac Jones’ teammate at Alabama, has shined in a featured role. Despite dealing with injuries, the 2019 third-round pick has racked up 603 yards on 143 carries (4.2 yards per attempt) and seven touchdowns in 10 games. Plus, Harris has caught 12-of-14 targets for 72 yards.
His combination of power and speed has stood out on film. Capable of running by and through would-be tacklers, the 5-foot-11, 213-pound back has clearly been one of the team’s most valuable and consistent performers.
However, Belichick doesn’t have just one high-impact running back. By finally getting it right in the draft, he now has two starting-caliber players at the position who boast star upside.
Rhamondre Stevenson has quickly made a name for himself by showcasing an uncanny blend of agility and strength as a ball-carrier. The rookie fourth-round pick has flashed exciting potential in a complementary role, totaling 305 yards and three touchdowns on 67 carries. In addition, the Oklahoma product has performed well in the passing game, hauling in 12-of-14 targets for 117 yards.
Of course, Stevenson seemed destined to spend the season in Belichick’s infamous doghouse at one point due to ball-security and pass-protection issues. However, the 6-foot, 228-pound back has made it impossible for coaches to keep him off the field.
After receiving only 25 carries through Week 8, Stevenson has seen a significant uptick in playing time. Filling in for an injured Harris, he turned heads by rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against the Cleveland Browns. He followed up by averaging just under 6 yards per carry in Thursday’s win over the Falcons.
Stevenson’s emergence should be viewed as a net positive for the Patriots. It obviously helps to have quality depth at a position that’s seen top-flight stars like Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey sidelined by injuries. And he gives Josh McDaniels another skilled weapon to deploy.
However, Stevenson stringing together three strong performances seems to have shaken up the plan at running back. Rather than riding Harris as the bell-cow, the Patriots have used a rotation in recent weeks. With the third-year pro ceding carries to his rookie teammate, it’s fair to wonder what the future holds at the position.
Will Belichick simply let McDaniels use the two players as he sees fit? Does he trust Stevenson in big moments? How will Harris respond to losing opportunities to a first-year player?
The situation could get complicated since there are major financial ramifications at stake. Harris will become a free agent after the 2022 season. But after missing essentially his entire rookie year and only playing 10 games in 2020, he doesn’t have an overly impressive resume. And with Stevenson eating into his workload, the 24-year-old may struggle to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.
Ultimately, though, Harris will want to cash in at some point and secure a full-time starting gig. But will Belichick want to pay him?
The sample size is small with Stevenson, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by the early returns. For someone who’s earned a reputation as a value-based general manager, wouldn’t Belichick rather move forward with a talented back on a cheap deal rather than pay a premium to keep Harris around?
While a case can be made for extending a homegrown player who’s not only productive but also well-respected, an equally compelling case can be made to build around Stevenson. He doesn’t have a ton of tread on his tires (just 165 carries at Oklahoma), and he has the frame to withstand the punishment that comes with playing the position.
Meanwhile, Harris entered the NFL with 477 carries on his college resume, and he’s struggled to stay healthy with the Patriots. Still, he brings a dynamic element to the offense, which could help him secure a long-term contract. But if Belichick wants to keep Harris around for years to come, he better prepare to give him a sizable raise. Whether that fits into the future budget remains to be seen, but it would be fairly surprising to see the Patriots invest significant financial resources on a position that’s been churned over so many times over the last two decades.
Ultimately, they don’t have to make a decision right now, but how they handle the running back rotation the rest of the season will be a fascinating storyline to watch. Either way, Patriots fans can only hope Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson continue to carve up defenses on a weekly basis.
Down the line, though, Bill Belichick will have to choose which back to build around.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.