With the New England Patriots breaking in a rookie quarterback last season, it should come as no surprise that they finished in the NFL’s top 10 in both rushing attempts (489) and yardage (2,151); their 4.4 yards-per-carry average landed them in a four-way tie for 11th.
While the team did make some moves to give quarterback Mac Jones more to work with, they also reinforced their backfield by re-signing veteran running back James White and adding a pair of backs on Day 3 of the draft.
With three new players in the mix — that includes White, who missed most of 2021 after suffering a severe hip injury — it feels like a good time to check in on New England’s running back room.
Harris has been the team’s leading rusher each of the past two years, easily putting together his best season to date in 2021 when he posted a 202-929-15 line with those 15 rushing touchdowns trailing only Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. He’s a physical runner, which is why Harris is so effective in goal-to-go situations.
He’s a bit of a one-trick pony, though, offering very little as a receiver and limited big-play ability, though, in fairness, he did break off more long runs last year. Of more concern is durability as the 25-year-old has taken his lumps, missing eight games over the past two seasons. Harris figures to serve as the primary early-down back.
An early fumble put him in the doghouse, but eventually Stevenson morphed into an important part of the ground game, cobbling together some solid work both as a complement to and replacement for Harris over the season’s final two-plus months.
The second-year pro is another physical back with good patience but limited burst. Although he didn’t get much work in the passing game, Stevenson was viewed as a capable checkdown target coming out of Oklahoma. Look for him to fill the second spot on the depth chart that can once again work alongside or in place of Harris.
Coming off a hip subluxation that necessitated surgery to correct, White re-signed with the Pats, though the contract offers little guaranteed money and leaves his spot in limbo. His recovery is reportedly going well, but he hasn’t been cleared, and at 30 it’s worth wondering if he had a half-step to lose.
White has history with head coach Bill Belichick, however, and if he’s a fair approximation of what he was, odds are the longtime coach will find a spot for White as the primary passing-down back.
Pierre Strong/Kevin Harris
Strong, taken in the fourth round, and Harris, drafted in the sixth, are newcomers to the Pats. Strong has better speed than others in the backfield, and while his hands are questionable, there’s a belief that he could develop into an effective weapon in the passing game. If he shows out in camp, perhaps he pushes White for that spot.
Harris is another beefy back (5-foot-10, 221 pounds) with some burst, but there are built-in durability concerns after back surgery in 2020 was followed by a pedestrian final year at South Carolina. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Harris ticketed for the practice squad.
Fantasy football outlook
Although those 15 touchdowns a season ago jump off the page, Harris shouldn’t be considered more than an RB3 given his durability concerns and lack of involvement in the passing game.
Stevenson is a notch or two below Harris, checking in as an RB4, though he arguably offers more upside via untapped pass-catching ability and doesn’t carry injury red flags.
After that you’re getting deep in the weeds. White could offer some late-round potential in larger point-per-reception leagues, but given we’ve seen little of him and Jones on the field together even that feels optimistic. Strong is worth monitoring. If he manages to carve out a role in camp, he’d be watch list material. The younger Harris is an extreme long shot to do anything of note in 2022.