Bill Belichick often says a player's biggest improvement comes in their second year. With a season of NFL football under their belts, players are often more comfortable and allow their abilities to take over. With that in mind we thought it would make sense to check in on several players entering Year 2 (and some others who have seen little playing time) to see how they're progressing in this strange offseason.
When Damien Harris basically endured a redshirt season in 2019 as part of a crowded Patriots backfield, many felt it was business as usual for a rookie running back under Bill Belichick. But a closer look at young backs of the Belichick era paints a slightly different picture.
While it's true that Shane Vereen and James White – both known more for their pass-catching abilities – were slowly indoctrinated into the system and saw very little playing time as rookies, the same cannot be said of traditional ball carriers Sony Michel, Stevan Ridley and Laurence Maroney.
Michel got the most work in Year 1 with 209 carries for 931 yards and six touchdowns as the lead dog, but Ridley and Maroney were also busy despite being backups. Ridley played in all 16 games and finished with 441 yards on 87 carries as a rookie playing behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, while Maroney managed to get in 14 games with 175 carries for 745 yards and six touchdowns while spelling Corey Dillon.
So, the fact that Harris appeared in only two games and received just four carries (for 12 yards) should not be dismissed as simply business as usual in Foxborough. However, while Harris wasn't able to get in uniform often, he also was part of a deeper and more talented corps of running backs than his predecessors.
Michel, White and Rex Burkhead got the bulk of the work, and special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden is a game day staple for his work in the kicking game and therefore gobbled up any leftover scraps coming out of the backfield. So, opportunities were scarce for the 2019 third-round pick but that didn't mean his indoctrination wasn't productive in other ways.
"The biggest thing for me last year was learning as much as I could," Harris explained. "Everybody's path is different. I focused on learning as much as I could and learning from the older guys in the room. There's a lot of experience in that room. Any opportunity to improve physically or mentally that was my mindset all year."
In addition to the aforementioned group, the running backs are also greatly aided by one of the longest-tenured assistants in the NFL in Ivan Fears. Much like Dante Scarnecchia, Fears has garnered tremendous respect among his players over the years, and Harris certainly appreciates his presence.
"Our room is super tight from the players and our relationship with Coach Fears," Harris said. "He's been a mentor for me. He's taught me so many things on and off field. He will talk to you about anything. He's very active in our personal lives and making sure we're good in everything we're doing. Obviously he's been doing it for a long time and is one of best in business. Coach Fears is helping to make me be the best I can be."
While an increase in playing time might be expected of any player entering his second season, Harris might get the opportunity to do even more. Michel reportedly is dealing with a foot injury that required surgery, and it's possible that his workload could be monitored, at least in the early going.
In the meantime, Harris is simply going about his business and preparing for the season the best he can under the restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's been interesting," he said. "This is my first offseason in the league and with everything going on I still have to find a way to get my work in and prepare. I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunities I do have working out on my own and staying ready for whenever that time comes. It's been different but at the same time I feel like I'm doing everything I can to stay prepared, whether that's online or working out on my own.
"I was back in Alabama early and then back in Massachusetts," he continued. "I've had a little interaction with teammates. Some of the guys have been able to get together and work out safely and still be productive."
With training camp set to open late next month, not much has changed for Harris. He still finds himself part of a deep group of backs, one that former Jets GM and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum recently described as the best position group in football.
How does the former Alabama star feel about being included in such lofty company?
"It's great. I have so many guys to learn from," Harris said. "Sony is a guy I knew from college and seeing his level of success was exciting. Rex and James have developed over the years. There's so much I can learn from them on and off the field. Listening to what they're telling me. How to become a pro.
"They all played their part in helping me learn and develop. The message from all of them is the same: Be ready because you never know when your time will come and you don't want to miss it. Stay the course, keep learning and be available."
With so many respected voices ringing in his ears, Harris appears to be in good hands moving forward.