New England Patriots’ training camp has been quieter than expected over the first couple practices, though that should change once players are cleared to wear pads.
Perhaps the most overlooked storyline thus far is how the running back touches will be divided after Damien Harris’ breakout campaign in 2020. For the season, Harris tallied 691 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 5.0 yards per attempt over 10 games.
In other words, Harris should be the prohibitive favorite to win the starting role. However, head coach Bill Belichick isn’t one to keep the faith in one running back from year to year. If this was a meritocracy, the 2019 third-rounder would enter camp as the No. 1 RB on the depth chart.
In year’s past, Belichick would be reluctant to praise Harris’ performance and commitment (or anyone’s) to prove his doubters wrong. However, he couldn’t find it within himself not to give Harris his flowers after the RB spent the offseason grinding to build off a promising 2020.
Bill Belichick shocked everybody by praising Patriots RB Damien Harris.
“I think Damien’s a player that improved a lot from Year 1 to Year 2,” Belichick said before Thursday’s training camp practice. “This year, he’s in a little different role. Now he has an opportunity to compete for a lead spot, and he’s embraced that.”
Did we really expect Belichick to name Harris the starter less than a week into camp? Obviously not, but it speaks volumes the Patriots head coach even acknowledged that Harris has an “opportunity to compete” for the starting role.
After all, Harris will have to fend off the likes of Sony Michel, who had his fifth-year option declined this offseason, pass-catching specialist James White, and fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, who was just activated off the NFI list, for that job.
Clearly aware of this, Harris’ offseason work began seemingly days after the Week 17 game against the Jets. In fact, Belichick admitted to reporters that the Alabama product has spent the majority of his offseason working his tail off in Foxborough.
“He’s worked hard,” Belichick continued. “He’s been here since the day after the season was over. He has worked as hard as anyone has in the offseason. I’m sure that’ll help his preparation. Heading into this camp, we’ll see how he does. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s a very dedicated player. I’ve been impressed by the commitment he has shown.”
Make no mistake about it, Patriots fans: this is among the rarest of admissions from Belichick, who generally lets his players’ (especially young, unproven ones) performance do the talking as opposed to going out of his way to praise them. The fact Belichick broke this trend to laud Harris’ dedication just speaks to how the 24-year-old running back is viewed in the building.
If you have Belichick’s attention, you’re doing something right, and that proves big things are ahead for Harris entering Year 3. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.