During the draft and free agency earlier this year, the Patriots loaded up on running backs, despite having one of the best duos in the league. They selected Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong Jr. in the fourth and sixth rounds, primarily due to the absence of passing back James White, and also brought in Ty Montgomery to complete the roster.
With Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson taking over the lead back roles for the team, it seemed like the signings were unnecessary given the talent already on the team. But after White’s retirement, Montgomery’s injury, and Kevin Harris’ move to the practice squad, it appeared as though fate made sure Bill Belichick brought in the right guys.
Throughout the preseason, both Harris and Stevenson continued to shine. It was reported that Stevenson had worked to improve his skills in the passing game in hopes to become a prominent fixture in the backfield in White’s absence. Harris was still performing as the RB1 and getting the reps as such as well.
However, since the start of the regular season, the running backs have nearly split snaps and divided the workload in each game. Although not necessarily an indication of how Belichick views one back over the other, it’s clear that the team would prefer to use the duo to their strengths, rather than relying on one to be the primary backfield weapon.
In last week’s game against the Detroit Lions, Stevenson took over the ground game after Harris suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter. The second-year player went on to total 25 carries for 161 yards while averaging nearly 6.5 yards per rush in the Patriots’ dominant performance. His showing was so impressive that even Belichick couldn’t stop raving about how well-rounded Stevenson is in his position.
"“You gotta give him a ton of credit. With Damien out, we only carried two running backs for the game, and he put it all on his shoulders and finished with a couple first downs at the end of the game in the 4-minute offense. He’s always good. He does a great job with the ball in his hands. He’s a strong runner but he can make people miss. He’s a good football player. I’m so glad we have him. He had a couple blitz pickup plays right up the middle where he stepped up there. He’s a good all-around back. Love him. Love him.”"
Now that Harris is undergoing further testing for his injury and reportedly going to miss some time, Stevenson is well on his way to becoming a true four-down back. Will this cause any issues in Harris looking for a new contract at the end of the season?
It’s well known that running backs have a shelf-life in the NFL. Not only do they not play as long as other offensive positions, but teams usually treat them with a revolving-door mentality; there’s always a younger, faster, and cheaper option ready to be signed. Belichick is not known for handing out lengthy contract extensions nor pricey contracts to any player, but especially running backs. This could lead to Harris’ departure after the end of the 2022 season.
But is that what is best for both parties? Depends on who you ask.
If Harris is looking for a big payday, he may not get it by staying in New England. Belichick has historically not paid any player top-dollar to retain them, not even Tom Brady despite his insurmountable success. So it seems unlikely he would change his ways just to retain Harris.
But on the other hand, the Patriots are reportedly set to have a lot in cap space next season, with Spotrac estimating nearly $55 million and Over The Cap listing just over $63 million. If one is accurate or the number is somewhere in-between, Harris’ chances of a new contract may be more possible than previously thought.
Belichick spent a lot of money during the 2021 free agency period, spending over $137.5 million to bring in a new crop of talent on both sides of the ball. With all of those additions, he also dished out a lot more money to individual players than he has in the past, suggesting he may be inclined to do so again next offseason for Harris.
The coach has made his feelings well-known regarding Harris, even making a point to praise him overall in October of 2021.
"“He has a ton of respect from every player and coach in this organization, as he should because he’s earned that. That’s not something you get from talking or some kind of a false image. You get it from day after day, consistent performance and dedication, and he’s the poster boy for that. He works extremely hard and takes his job very seriously and always tries to perform at the absolute highest level and do what’s best for the team. So he has everybody’s — he’s earned everybody’s respect for that. That’s not anything that’s given. He’s put in the blood, the sweat and he’s earned it.”"
In considering whether or not to re-sign Harris, how Strong Jr. and K. Harris develop throughout this season will probably be the determining factor for the Patriots. Belichick obviously selected them in the draft for a reason and if he sees any inclination that either can be productive running backs, D. Harris is most likely looking somewhere else to sign.
Is that the best choice for the Patriots going forward? It’s unclear at this point, considering how well Harris and Stevenson have been for the team. Moving the brunt of the workload to Stevenson isn’t a completely bad idea, but seeing how well dynamic running back duos have been doing in the NFL makes retaining Harris far more intriguing.
The next several weeks will be interesting to watch as Stevenson takes over and Harris is out. Well on his way to smashing his rookie season numbers, Stevenson is poised for a jump in production and importance for the offense. Hopefully, for Harris, this won’t lead to a complete transfer of power from RB1 to RB2, but Stevenson’s performance may sway Belichick’s decision to allow him to move on this offseason.