Patriots Mailbag: Damien Harris or the offensive line the driving force behind run game?

Phil Perry
·14 min read

Perry's Mailbag: Credit Harris or o-line for Pats run game success? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

* Every Friday during Patriots season, Phil Perry tackles all your questions in his Patriots mailbag. Among the topics this week: The Patriots' success running the ball, what the team could look like in 2021, and how Stephon Gilmore's future in New England could play out.

Can't it be both? Damien Harris has been a monster since taking a full-time role in Week 4 against the Chiefs. He's graded out as the No. 5 back in the NFL in that time, per Pro Football Focus. He's fifth among backs in yards, third in carries of 10 yards or more, and among 25 backs with at least 64 attempts in that span he is sixth in yards after contact per attempt.

In my opinion, though, the Patriots offensive line is the driving force behind the Patriots possessing the most efficient rushing attack in the NFL when using expected points added per rush (0.087). They have three players playing at an elite level in Michael Onwenu, Shaq Mason and David Andrews while their two starters on the left side, Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn, are also having very good seasons. They can block up a variety of different types of runs with their athleticism and power at the point of attack, and Josh McDaniels clearly feels comfortable calling plays to take advantage of his most skilled position group.

That's where I would start when it comes to the run game's success. Though Harris has made the most of the space he's been provided and is the team's clear-cut best first-and-second-down option moving forward so long as he's healthy.

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I wish I knew, John. Although trying to envision what's next for this team moving forward is part of the fun. It could be, as you say, that next year is the more traditional "rebuild," where the team leans even more heavily on young players, loads up on cap space (because cap space can carry over from one year to the next), maybe adds draft picks, and lays the foundation for a more drastic roster overhaul. That could be the case.

It's unclear who will be the quarterback next season. It's unclear whether or not Stephon Gilmore will be in the fold. Joe Thuney, Jason McCourty, James White, Lawrence Guy, David Andrews, John Simon, Adam Butler, Rex Burkhead and Deatrich Wise are all scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. There's plenty of uncertainty there. Iit's why prior to their loss to the Niners, you could've easily made the case that they should've been buyers at the trade deadline in order to capitalize on this season before the uncertainty of next season arrived.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Can Cam Newton be a top-10 guy? Is JC Jackson a No.1? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

On the other hand, the Patriots could hit hyperdrive on the building process this offseason. Yes, they could carry their cap space from this offseason into next, but they're currently slated to have a whopping $60-plus million in space even with the cap potentially bottoming out to $175 million next year. That could buy them quite a bit. Even if the quarterback question remains complicated -- typically top-tier passers don't become available -- there are plenty of high-end receivers free. If they come away with one or two, acquire a capable quarterback via trade, free agency (maybe an improved Cam Newton returns) or the draft, this team's outlook could change drastically.

Which way will they go? I think they want to be competitive each and every year. It's how they approached last offseason. I think it's how they'll approach next offseason. I'd say be prepared for them to spend. What they do at quarterback will largely determine how the season goes and how long the rebuild lasts.

Whenever Edelman comes back, my assumption is that they would like to work him back in slowly. Even prior to missing time, he was the No. 3 receiver on the team in terms of snaps played behind N'Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd. And because it looks as though Meyers (57 snaps against Baltimore) has already passed Harry (35) on the depth chart, I'd go with Meyers there. 

It's been a roller coaster, Pat. After Week 2, we were having a discussion on our Week 3 Pregame Live program about how the Patriots should think about extending Newton. I was told there was a "long way to go" on that front. Soon thereafter Newton contracted COVID, missed time, came back, played like the worst quarterback in the NFL, and has turned it around -- drastically so -- in the last three weeks.

Here's why I'd say right now that I believe it's more likely than not that Newton will move on for 2021. I think the salary most fans would be comfortable with paying Newton next season -- we did an unofficial poll on Zolak and Bertrand Friday -- would be somewhere in the range of $15 million dollars. That, to me, seems about right. The franchise tag of $25 million seems high. Anywhere in the $20 million range seems pricey. The problem with that, though? There is no such thing as a veteran starting quarterback who is paid in the teens of millions.

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Teddy Bridgewater is the low man on the totem pole in that regard, pulling in $21 million per year. Then there is a chasm. Then there is top-paid backup Taysom Hill, making $10.5 million per year. The Patriots will have to determine after the season, if they're discussing a long-term future with Newton, whether they see him as worthy of a low-veteran contract. Given the way he's played of late, if he can keep that up, he could make an easy case to make Bridgewater money. If Newton craters again, then the conversation gets a little more interesting. Quarterback reclamation project contracts (Bridgewater with the Saints, Ryan Tannehill's first deal with the Titans, Marcus Mariota's deal with the Raiders) pay about $7 million per year. 

There's no rule against Newton taking less than $20 million per year on his next deal, as our Tom E. Curran pointed out to me recently, but if the Patriots were hoping to get him on that kind of deal, they would be expecting Newton to take a hometown discount. Is that likely? Especially with a half-dozen teams or more looking for new passers in the offseason? I'd say no.

Then the question becomes would the Patriots be willing to spend a significant portion of their available cap space on a quarterback who is Newton's age and has Newton's injury history. They might be. But after playing hardball with Tom Brady for a few years, I'm not anticipating that. 

Brussel sprouts have entered into my top-five favorite side dishes as I've grown old. And easy to prep. No bacon. No cheese. I'm cool with those, but without they'll still be fantastic without. That's gotta be the answer.

I'd expect he's playing on a new contract next year. And I'd expect that he's playing on that new contract elsewhere. That could conceivably be in New England, I guess, because they have so much cap space. But I wouldn't anticipate it.  Part of the decision could depend on how Bill Belichick views JC Jackson. I'm of the belief that Jackson can be a No. 1 corner. If Belichick feels the same way, he'd likely feel better about dealing Gilmore prior to next season.

Corner salaries have skyrocketed in recent years. We know Belichick values the position -- he's had a true No. 1 every year since trading for Aqib Talib almost a decade ago -- but I'm not sure he'd be thrilled to pay Gilmore close to $20 million per season as he heads into his 31-year-old season. 

Happy they picked up some shooting. Shooting matters. All well and good. Just would've liked to see a bigger shakeup. This team needs it, in my opinion. Gordon Hayward will be elsewhere, in all likelihood. That's a start. I think trading Marcus Smart for something of value would've helped them even more.

Hayward at least has the ability to be a distributor, has an awareness of what the game needs in real time. Smart hustles, which I appreciate. But his decision-making offensively is, at times, heinous. I think they could've received something of real value in return for him had they been willing to deal.

Same, man. Same.

Honestly, Gillette's is right near the top if not No. 1. I'm addicted to the chowder there every week. Thankful it remains a staple even during COVID. Houston's is tremendous. The barbecue, no surprise, is damn good. Tampa Bay's is also excellent. It earned The Athletic's top overall press-box-spread rating. All sorts of juicy details there. Ahem.

He makes a massive difference. Would they have beaten either Kansas City or Denver with him? Maybe Denver. But Newton acknowledged he was very much out of sorts that week, and it might not have been salvageable. But Andrews is one of the major reasons the run game is as successful as it is, and one of the major reasons the protection for Newton has been mostly very good this season. Not having him last year was significant.

Wally! I'd say that right now Harris and Michel have swapped their 2019 roles. That means if Harris is healthy, Michel won't have much of a role. As was the case last season in reverse. Harris has been too good to cede playing time to his predecessor. But running backs tend to get dinged up so I wouldn't say Michel's season is over by any stretch. If Harris has to miss time, Michel will be back at the first-and-second-down guy between the tackles.

Love me some honeycrisp apples. Hearty. Sweet. If you ask me, and you did, and thank you for that, there's no better apple snackin'. 

Great question. How the Patriots have handled the linebacker position is fascinating. Ja'Whaun Bentley was a great example. He was off the boards of a few teams that drafted linebackers that year because he wasn't viewed as athletic enough to play the modern game. Patriots scooped him up. Now he's a captain. They value run-stopping ability there and then figure out the coverage part later. While Bentley has occasionally found himself chasing in space this season, in recent years the Patriots will try to prevent those players from getting into coverage binds. How? They'll rush 'em instead, and send safeties after backs and tight ends down the field.

Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy (when Van Noy was more of an off-the-ball player prior to shifting to a full-time outside linebacker role) were among the top linebackers in football when it came to pass-rush snaps over the last few seasons. So to answer your question, yes, I think they treat contact-loving safeties as their "coverage linebackers." Not sure they have much use for a lighter linebacker who can't play the run unless he's a special teams star. They had a player who has turned into a pretty good version of that in Kamu Grugier-Hill a few years ago. Cut him at the end of training camp. 

Thanks, Dave! Soon. When Bill Belichick trades for a player, it's with a specific role in mind. Don't think they'll overload him with responsibility, but they'll have something in mind for him in short order here. 

I see it, Harry. But it's dimly lit. The end of their schedule, while not necessarily loaded top-to-bottom with the iron of the NFL, is no cakewalk. And their two foes within the division -- particularly Miami -- have nice paths to double-digit wins. Tom E. and I laid out keys to the season a few episodes ago on the podcast. Mine? Take care of the football. Tackle. Keep the offensive line healthy. If they find a way to do those things, they'll have a shot to go on a little run. 

He told me a couple weeks ago on Patriots Wednesday that he was just stuck behind some good players on the depth chart. Playing behind Julian Edelman makes sense. Playing behind Damiere Byrd makes sense because they are such different types of receivers and because the Patriots have wanted a speed element on the field. The argument would be that Meyers should've been playing over N'Keal Harry. Won't fight you there.

But Harry was a first-round pick. Teams are always trying to develop those assets and max them out because there was so much invested. Meyers has played too well lately, though, to give up time to anyone -- regardless of where they were drafted.

Bill Belichick told us he would not. Disappointing. Particularly for a defense that relies on having a true nose tackle in the mix. Carl Davis is now the one manning that role. He played well against the Ravens.

Jackson is a restricted free agent. The most lucrative tender he'd see as an RFA would pay him about $5 million. (The first-round tender this year paid $4.6 million.) It's the offseason of 2022 that Jackson will get his biggest bump.

Thanks for the questions, all. We'll be back for a post-Thanksgiving bag next week. Enjoy the holiday.