In the 2019 NFL Draft, it looked like the Patriots got a steal when they selected Damien Harris in the third round. Harris had a productive four-year career at the University of Alabama and had once been considered a potential first-round selection. The Patriots snapped him up and many thought that he and Sony Michel would form a dynamic one-two punch at the NFL level. However, Harris didn’t live up to expectations as a rookie, barely seeing the field, and that’s leaving many fantasy football owners wondering if he’s a legit sleeper or just a late-round handcuff ahead of the ’20 season.
So far in training camp, it looks like Harris has a chance to emerge in a bigger role than he earned during his rookie season. But fantasy owners will be concerned about Bill Belichick’s propensity to rotate RBs, as well as the shortened offseason and its effect on Harris (i.e. not getting any preseason carries).
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2020 cheat sheet
Below, we’ll break down this frustrating committee and see if any have a chance to truly break out.
Damien Harris fantasy outlook
During his college days at Alabama, Harris was a consistent back that split carries but always produced. Though he never had more than 172 total touches during his career, he twice ran for 1,000-plus yards and had three seasons with at least 1,080 total yards. He was productive in the red zone, racking up 20 TDs in his final two seasons, and had a career yards-per-carry average of 6.4.
However, late in his college career, Harris ceded some snaps to Josh Jacobs, and it was Jacobs who ended up becoming the more sought after NFL prospect. Jacobs became a first-round pick in the ’19 draft and is on pace to be a first-round pick in most fantasy drafts in ’20. Harris, meanwhile, slipped to the 87th pick and will come off the board in the mid-to-late rounds of most fantasy drafts.
The reason for this is simple. Harris simply didn’t play much as a rookie. He played a total of 10 snaps, with five of those coming on offense. On the year, he had four carries for 12 yards. That was it.
Harris’ numbers and lack of playing time may scare some off, especially considering the other members of a deep New England backfield. That said, it is worth noting that Belichick gives some of his rookies a de facto redshirt year, especially at the RB position. Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen played 191 and 26 snaps, respectively, as rookies in ’11. James White played 31 snaps during his first year in ’14. Even Sony Michel only saw 28.6 percent of the snaps during his ’18 rookie year.
So, in short, Harris’ first year is par for the course of how Belichick tends to treat his backs. With another year of experience in the system, Harris should have a chance to emerge in a bigger role. He may not be the starter off the bat, but it’s worth noting that Michel (foot) has been banged up for the better part of a year and Harris has looked good so far at camp. At the very least, it looks like things are trending in a positive direction for Harris.
Harris qualifies as a sleeper pick right now since he’s coming off the board as the RB54, per FantasyPros’ ADP. He has far more upside than that and if he can emerge as the Patriots’ top back, he could be a borderline RB2. He may end up being more of a guy to consider as a potential flex play right now but if he earns the top role in the New England backfield or becomes the team’s goal-line back, he should have a chance to be very productive.
2020 STANDARD FANTASY RANKINGS:
Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Superflex | Top 200
Sony Michel fantasy outlook
In each of his two NFL seasons, Michel has come up just a little bit short of 1,000 rushing yards. He has 13 career TDs and has been a steady, consistent back for the most part in New England.
However, Michel has had one issue that has created headaches for some fantasy owners. Injuries. While Michel has missed just three games during his career, all of which came as a rookie, he was banged up quite a bit during his second year. He played through the maladies, but that caused his yards-per-carry average to plummet from 4.5 as a rookie to 3.7 last year. He didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game in ’19, and nearly half of his TDs came in one week.
.Michel’s biggest problem is his consistency. Will it get better if he’s healthy? Maybe, but the bigger issue is that Michel may not be healthy to start the ’20 season.
Right now, Michel is dealing with a foot injury that kept him sidelined for a majority of the offseason after surgery. He did recently return to the practice field and the Patriots seem to be confident that he will be ready to play Week 1 vs. the Dolphins, but there are two things worth wondering about that. One, how close to 100 percent is he? Two, how many carries will he shoulder after missing so much practice time? Both questions have many potential answers, and that’s what makes Michel a bigger risk than he has been in years past.
The good news is that Michel will come at a discount in most fantasy drafts. He is the 36th RB coming off the board, which puts him in the borderline flex category. That’s a price that most fantasy owners should be willing to pay, at least in standard formats. If an owner can draft Michel as the 36th RB in the middle rounds, then it should be easy enough to grab Harris as a handcuff a round or two later.
Were Michel’s price higher, he would probably be a player to avoid, but in the middle of the draft, he’s worth taking a chance on as he does have more experience. That said, Harris has more upside, so he may ultimately be the guy to get depending on how many RBs you can land early in your fantasy draft.
2020 PPR RANKINGS:
Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Superflex | Top 200
James White: PPR stud
Of course, the decision about Patriots RBs isn’t just about targeting Harris or Michel. It’s also balancing how they compare to other role-playing backs on the roster. White, for instance, will not get as many carries as either lead back, but he could be the most consistently productive running back for fantasy purposes. White is a PPR stud who has averaged 69 catches, 594 yards, and five TDs per year the past four seasons. He has a high floor and could see a ton of targets from Cam Newton, who got a chance to throw to Christian McCaffrey in his final two years with the Panthers.
White can certainly be trusted as an RB2 in PPR formats. Harris and Michel won’t challenge him for receptions, as Michel has just 19 total catches during his career while Harris averaged on 13 catches per year in college. White’s potential in standard formats is a bit trickier to calculate, but he’s two spots behind Michel as the RB38 in ADP right now.
White’s floor should hypothetically be higher than both Harris’ and Michel’s, so if you need a safe pick, don’t be afraid to choose White. Just remember that his ceiling isn’t as high as that of Harris, and he’s not a true threat to take away carries from the bigger, more powerful backs.
DRAFT STRATEGY AND RANKINGS TIERS:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | D/ST
What about Rex Burkhead, Lamar Miller?
In each of his three years with the Patriots, Burkhead has put up a couple of good fantasy outings. The veteran is solid between the tackles but can also catch passes out of the backfield. In all likelihood, he’ll be the backup to White in the receiving role, but if either Harris or Michel gets banged up, don’t be surprised to see him get some carries. Without injuries, however, it’s difficult to know exactly when Burkhead may be productive.
Meanwhile, Miller was picked up late in the offseason by the Patriots after missing all of the ’19 campaign after a preseason ACL tear. Miller was once a sure-fire RB2 in most fantasy formats and he has averaged 1,317 scrimmage yards and eight TDs per 16 games that past five years. Coming off a major injury at 29, he won’t have that type of production again, but if he makes the team, there’s at least a chance that he could make an impact in New England.
Still, Burkhead and Miller’s value would come mostly due to injury. At the very best, they’re handcuffs in deep leagues. But for most, they are probably just guys to have on the waiver wire watch list.