If Damien Harris were a sure-fire No. 1 RB with no strong competition behind him – similar to Jonathan Taylor’s situation in Indianapolis or Derrick Henry’s in Tennessee – then we could envision him replicating or even exceeding last season’s impressive 201.1 fantasy point total.
The 25-year-old former third-round draft pick has all the makings of a weekly fantasy starter who, in a near-ideal world, could eclipse 275 touches. Hey, he had 223 last year in 15 games. Two more touches per contest across 17 games would give him a near-elite 287.
So is that doable? Harris was last year’s RB20 in fantasy points per game. Can he be as good or even better this year? The likely answer is no.
To thrive, he needs increased usage. To disappoint, any of dozens of factors could lead to a significant regression. For someone who already has a relatively low ceiling, Harris not only is a risky bet at his RB28 ADP, but also a risky bet to finish inside the top 36. Here are some factors that are putting downward pressure on his upside.
First, Harris might not remain on the Patriots for long. He’ll be a free agent after this season. In somewhat similar circumstances last summer, the Patriots traded away Sony Michel. Although Harris is more important to this team this year than Michel was last year, if Bill Belichick & company believe this isn’t yet a Super Bowl caliber squad, they might reposition their assets for a more productive title run in 2023.
That could mean finding a willing trade partner for Harris (not too difficult given his cheap rookie contract). As a result, Harris might find himself in a backfield timeshare, as most teams – particularly those looking to beef up their own backfields for a playoff push – are looking more for Michel-like depth than for a ready-made starter.
Second, New England has restocked its backfield since injuries last year thrust the 31-year-old Brandon Bolden and return specialist J.J. Taylor into top-four roles. With James White recently retired, rookies Pierre Strong and/or Kevin Harris are poised to make at least a little noise with an eye toward larger roles in 2023.
Third, we cannot forget about Rhamondre Stevenson, who could cut even more into Harris’s usage after showing very well as a rookie. In each of their final 10 games played last season, Stevenson picked up 121 carries and 17 targets, while Harris had 139 carries and 13 targets. Yes, Stevenson had the benefit of starting two games with Harris sidelined. But he served as Harris’s backup/complement in his other eight games and still somehow nearly kept pace.
Fourth, how much will Mac Jones be unleashed? Presumably, more than last season, particularly with the additions of DeVante Parker and rookie Tyquan Thornton. Only six teams attempted fewer passes than the Patriots, and only seven teams ran more. Even a modest uptick in Jones’s passing attack at the expense of rushing frequency could cap Harris’s touches below 2021’s total.
Fifth, Harris is not an adept pass-catching back. He played on more than 50% of his team’s offensive snaps only once after Week 4 last year. He’s a glorified situational runner, used frequently as a chain mover and goal-line threat, but not as a three-down back. This makes him much too TD-dependent to warrant a top-28 positional ADP.
And that brings up to a sixth and final (for now) key factor: Harris thrived last season largely because of touchdown opportunities. He scored a whopping 15 times on the ground, with eight coming inside the 3-yard line. Among the 12 RBs with more than 12 carries inside the 5-yard line, Harris had by far the lowest percentage of his team’s rushing attempts (59.3%).
In other words, Harris had more competition for up-close TDs than many of his starting peers. Yet he was able to convert at a wildly efficient clip. Assuming he’s once again “the lead guy” near the goal line, and not merely one of multiple RBs competing equally, he’ll still have to thread the needle to maintain that degree of efficiency in 2022. This makes a TD regression not only possible but likely.
While most of the fantasy universe acknowledges Harris will regress, there’s a wide disparity based on “how much.” 97 of 102 experts compiled by Fantasy Pros (95%) rank him inside the top 36, while 64 (63%) place him inside the top 30.
We are urging fantasy managers to draft Harris at least one round after his ADP in the firm belief that he’s a long shot to finish inside the top 36.
Damien Harris, NE (RB28 ADP)
Contrarian Prediction: Not a top-36 RB