Minicamp Blogservations: Damien Harris getting some run

Rookie running back Damien Harris
Rookie running back Damien Harris

The Patriots wrapped up their three-day mandatory minicamp Thursday under partly sunny skies that were interrupted occasionally by clouds and even some sprinkles early on. The workout was set to be about 15 minutes shorter than the previous pair of two-hour sessions but was cut a bit further and was limited to about 80 minutes. With the team set to gather Thursday evening at Robert Kraft’s home for the ring ceremony, the abbreviated practice was welcomed.

Throughout the course of the week there were a few notable personnel groups that caught our attention, not the least of which was Joe Thuney’s presence at left tackle while Isaiah Wynn continues to be limited to individual work in his return from a torn Achilles.

While most eyes have been on rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry in terms of the draft class, it’s been hard not to notice third-rounder Damien Harris. The rookie running back out of Alabama received a ton a reps with Sony Michel missing the workouts for undisclosed reasons.

Harris shared the workload with Josh Jacobs and Bo Scarborough under Nick Saban at Alabama, so unlike many Crimson Tide players who enter the league with a lot of wear and tear, he looked fresh, quick and explosive albeit in shorts and a T-shirt.

At 215 pounds he’s more than comfortable carrying the load between the tackles and near the goal line, which many believed would be his role this season. Based on his mobility during camp, as well as his apparent comfort coming out of the backfield to catch the ball, perhaps he could be more than that as part of a deep and talented running back corps in New England.

Damien Harris and Ivan Fears
Damien Harris and Ivan Fears

“You can work on anything at this point,” Harris said. “That’s our objective — to get better at all phases of game. I know that’s my objective, to be the best player I can be. Whether that’s in the run game or the pass game, special teams, whatever I’m asked to do I want to come out here and do it at a high level.”

That began with some catches on Tuesday, but on Wednesday the focus was more on the running game and he took a lot of the early reps ahead of Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, two veterans who obviously don’t need as much work in the system as a newcomer. That continued Thursday and Harris looked pretty sharp.

Michel was excellent at times as a rookie last season but never seemed to get comfortable in the passing game. Basically, anytime Michel was on the field the Patriots ran the ball, and those kinds of trends are what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels likes to avoid.

Given Harris’ admittedly brief start, it’s possible he could join Burkhead as a candidate for a more diverse role, and with Michel out of the lineup he’s gotten some chances to pick up the system.

“I never met Sony previously, I know I played against him [in college],” Harris said. “But once I got here, him and all the running backs kind of welcomed me with open arms and they’re doing everything they can to help me.”

Harris’ selection at 87 overall raised some eyebrows, but based on the lack of depth at receiver and tight end, it’s possible Bill Belichick expects to lean more heavily on his running back group to create offense in 2019.

As for the rest of minicamp, here are some things that stood out this week.

Check out photos of the Patriots practicing during mandatory minicamp at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, June 6, 2019.

-Michel was one of seven players who missed all three practices. Others included Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner, Yodny Cajuste, Nick Brossette, Demaryius Thomas and Deatrich Wise. On Thursday, corner J.C. Jackson was added to that list. Ebner wore a red hoodie on Wednesday and watched practice but did not suit up.

-When the Patriots signed Jamie Collins last month I felt it was as a potential depth piece. Based on minicamp, it may be much more. Collins was a big part of most personnel groups, joining fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Collins, Hightower and Van Noy all have experience and versatility, and that was on display throughout the week. All were used as rushers and in coverage, where Collins looked particularly sharp, getting in the passing lanes on a few occasions. Bentley appears best suited for a more traditional inside role, and the depth at the position was tough to ignore.

-Chung reportedly underwent shoulder surgery earlier in the offseason and wasn’t seen during the week. That offered some opportunities for Obi Melifonwu and Terrence Brooks, the later a free agent pickup who sees most of his action on special teams. Both worked at times alongside Devin McCourty on the back end of the secondary. Belichick talked about that pair after practice.

“All those guys, guys like him that came in the middle of the year, rookies from last year, they’re way ahead starting from the beginning this year,” Belichick said. “He’s gotten a lot of reps here in camp with Patrick not practicing, so he’s been able to take advantage of them. He and Brooks have both gotten a lot of snaps.”

-Julian Edelman entered the field wearing a Bruins game jersey with the No. 13 and ‘Dorsett’ on the back. His fellow wideout must have received it during a recent trip to Boston Garden for a Bruins game. Edelman kept the shirt on through warmups and stretching before hanging it from a practice dummy in between the fields. Brandon Bolden, Duke Dawson and Dorsett all wore Bruins hats during stretching instead of their helmets. Bill Belichick wished the team well and wore a hat as well. David Andrews was among those donning Bs caps on the way off the field in advance of Thursday night’s pivotal Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.

-Troy Brown and Deion Branch again were in attendance working with wide receivers. Branch generally lined up with the receivers at the line while Brown positioned himself in the secondary similar to where a safety or perhaps a deep-dropping middle linebacker might be. They provided some refinements on footwork and routes, particularly for the young receivers like Harry.

-Speaking of Harry, the physical ability is clearly evident. He possesses strong hands and has shown the ability to make difficult catches under duress, much in the way his talents were described during the pre-draft process. However, he remains very much a work in progress in terms of his route-running based on the amount of instruction he receives during practice. Many passes in his direction appear to be slightly off target, which is likely the result of the rookie not always being exactly where he is supposed to be. McDaniels worked with him and Brady in a small group each day. On Thursday the OC was seen correcting his route on a couple of occasions, but on one it appeared he directed the adjustments toward Brady after a pass sailed off his back hand and he turned in off a quick-hitting hitch route. It will be interesting to watch Harry’s improvements in this area once training camp begins in July.

-The specialists spent some time in between fields while the offense and defense went to work on each side. Rookie Jake Bailey took the opportunity to ride the stationary bike during one of these segments while Stephen Gostkowski did so after another. Bailey worked on some plus-50 punting later in practice with Gostkowski serving as the would-be returner making fair catches near the goal line.

-When the offense went to work in 11-on-11 drills, they did so with an interesting look. Burkhead and James White were together in the backfield with Edelman, Dorsett and Maurice Harris in a three-receiver, no tight end set. On the next play, Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Brandon Bolden replaced Edelman, Burkhead and White.

-Braxton Berrios enjoyed another active day with a few nice catches, one coming in the back corner of the end zone from Brian Hoyer. He did seem to be spending some extra time stretching during the practice – something to keep an eye on moving forward.

-Dorsett turned in one of the best plays of the week when he outfought rookie Joejuan Williams for a pass in the back right corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Williams appeared to be in good position to make a play, but Dorsett timed his leap perfectly and got his hands on the pass while managing to keep his feet in bounds. He excitedly spun the ball in celebration after the catch.

-On the flip side, it could be argued that Stephon Gilmore was the best player on the field during minicamp. He consistently shut down opposing receivers, whether it was someone as experienced and shifty as Edelman or as raw and physical as Harry.

-Mick Lombardi spent a lot of time with Jarrett Stidham between periods, much the way former assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski did in the past with Danny Etling.

-The Patriots are scheduled to hold two more OTA practices next week with Monday’s open to the media but closed to the public.

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