Bill Belichick knows his team has to be better on offense this season. After all, the New England Patriots failed to advance to their ninth straight AFC title game because of their struggles on that side of the ball. However, as Belichick begins the next chapter of his coaching career without Tom Brady, he will have to figure out a way to manufacture points. While Cam Newton may draw more attention, it’s Damien Harris who can save New England’s offense.
The Patriots struggled on offense in 2019
Tom Brady’s final season in Foxborough turned out to be one of his worst. From a team perspective, the Patriots still went 12-4 thanks to their top-ranked defense. However, not even that dominant unit could make up for a lackluster offense that finished seventh in scoring. In fact, the Patriots’ 420 points scored represented their worst mark since 2008, when Brady missed the season with a torn ACL.
The passing attack failed to find any rhythm. First-round pick N’Keal Harry missed most of his rookie year with injuries. That set back his development and resulted in an obvious lack of chemistry with Brady. Plus, Mohamed Sanu never provided the spark New England desperately needed after Belichick traded a second-round pick for the veteran wideout.
It did not get better on the ground, either. An offensive line ravaged by injuries could not open holes for New England’s running backs. Sony Michel’s yards-per-carry averaged plummeted from 4.5 to 3.7. Despite playing in all 16 games, he actually totaled fewer rushing yards (912) than he did while playing 13 games as a rookie (931).
Bill Belichick drafted a potential star in Damien Harris
While the 2019 Patriots offense struggled mightily, Bill Belichick the general manager does not deserve all the blame. Besides Harry, he also selected four other offensive players in the 2019 NFL draft. Belichick appeared to score a potential year-one contributor in running back Damien Harris.
The former five-star recruit spent four years playing for Nick Saban. At Alabama, Harris faced stiff competition for his job. Yet, he carried the load for the Crimson Tide as a sophomore and a junior. Harris eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back campaigns. He also chipped in 26 receptions and scored 15 total touchdowns.
Though he split carries with Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris as a senior, Harris still put together a rock-solid season. Given his complete skill set and history of production, many expected him to compete for snaps as a rookie. Yet, injuries and a loaded depth chart resulted in essentially a redshirt season for the Kentucky native.
However, Damien Harris still boasts tremendous upside and has three years remaining on his $3.6 million rookie contract. And given Michel’s durability concerns, he has a chance to save a Patriots offense desperate for a dominant running back.
How Harris can save New England’s offense
Bill Belichick does not care how you got to the NFL. After all, the Patriots won six Super Bowl championships with a former sixth-round pick throwing to a former seventh-rounder who played quarterback in college. Despite Michel’s first-round pedigree, that means little when it comes to his standing on the team.
While Michel played a key role in New England’s 2018 Super Bowl run, he failed to progress in his second season. In particular, his inability to contribute as a pass-catcher stood out. Michel has caught just 19 passes on 31 targets in 29 regular-season games. When defenses see him in the backfield, they can load the box in anticipation of a between-the-tackles run.
On the other hand, Harris has the ability to save New England’s offense given his complete skill set. Though he did not get an opportunity to contribute as a rookie, he has been the best back in training camp, according to Jeff Howe.
Blessed with good speed, a strong, muscular frame, and soft hands, the second-year pro offers incredible upside as an every-down back. New England returns a strong offensive line anchored by Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Assuming Belichick can find a suitable replacement for Marcus Cannon, that unit should have no trouble opening holes for whoever carries the ball.
Ultimately, Josh McDaniels could utilize Harris on all three downs. His pass-catching chops will force defenses to respect him as a receiving option, which could also open up ample play-action options. Plus, when you throw in Newton’s mobility, that only gives McDaniels more creative freedom to confuse defenses.
With Michel still sidelined after undergoing foot surgery, that only gives Harris more opportunity to seize the RB1 role. If he continues to shine in training camp, Bill Belichick should show no hesitation in promoting Harris over Michel. And if he can showcase the dynamic all-around ability that made him a star at Alabama, Damien Harris will save the Patriots offense.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.