Position: Running Back
Birthday: February 11, 1997 (20.6 years old)
Listed height: 5’11”
Listed weight: 221 lbs
For NFL prospects, life is difficult when you look normal. Among especially physically impressive athletes, the prototypical players have to prove extra skillful or risk being overlooked and even forgotten. A somewhat-skinny Christian McCaffrey received a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the 2017 draft process and struggled to be viewed as a legitimate NFL running back. Michael Thomas, an extremely average receiver in terms of appearance, was passed on in favor of more physically unique players like Corey Coleman and Laquon Treadwell. On the flip side, a player like Ishmael Zamora was anointed as much more than an undrafted free agent, largely due to his monstrous 6’4”, 215 pound stature.
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Above everyone else in recent memory, Damien Harris has drawn the shortest of all sticks in this phenomenon. The Kentucky native has been bookended by physical freaks at Alabama in Derrick Henry (6’3”, 238) and Bo Scarbrough (6’2”, 236). The fallout from his unfortunate situation is glaring heading into 2017; Scarbrough has been touted as one of this class’s top backs with one of its highest upsides while Harris has gone practically unnoticed despite proving superior in each significant statistical category (read ahead).
Harris’s ordinary height and build have harmed his draft perception and will continue to do so as the casual viewing majority admire Scarbrough’s athletic profile in 2017. However, Harris was a promising prospect as a sophomore and with some improvement, can legitimately be a top five running back heading into the 2018 draft. Despite overarching narratives, he is far more relevant than merely being “the guy in front of Scarbrough,” and if you keep tabs on his progression as the season passes, you can take advantage of that narrative before NFL teams set the record straight.
As a Recruit
Harris certainly didn’t sneak up on anyone as he entered the Crimson Tide backfield in 2015. He was touted by 247sports as the country’s best running back with a .9860 (5-star) composite score. In a talent-devoid Kentucky, Harris dominated the high school scene, racking up over 6700 rushing yards in addition to 111 rushing touchdowns in his career (despite carrying the ball just 97 times as a senior). In his junior year, he won the Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year after enjoying a full workload of 220 carries.
Understandably, Harris got little run in his freshman season as Derrick Henry ran his Heisman campaign and Miami Dolphin Kenyan Drake backed him up. With those two out of the picture, he and Scarbrough formed a lethal one-two punch and combined for 272 carries, 1849 rushing yards, and 13 touchdowns (Scarbrough, of course, is quite good in his own right). Each had their own specialty while proving perfectly competent at everything:
(For reference, average opportunity rate and highlight yards/opportunity measures would be closer to 38% and 4.0, respectively.) Harris was the lead back by a carry or two per game, with better per-carry stats while Scarbrough was the primary touchdown-scorer.
There is a bright side and a dark side to Harris’s receiving production. The bad: He did little when given an opportunity, gaining a miserable 6.2 yards per target. The good news is that in catching 14 of 16 targets, he can at least provide consistency to the passing game. If he improves his playmaking skills (that extend into the running game, as I dive into further on), he should be able to do much more on those receptions.
On the Field
At this point, Harris is a… strange running back. As I put together a list of strengths and weaknesses for him, I couldn’t help but notice a number of contradictions. Naturally, this makes him quite hard to understand. He’s pretty physically gifted… and has clear limitations elsewhere. His running style is pretty well developed… yet incomplete. Let me explain.
On paper, Harris is quite a solid prospect. He’s unquestionably strong in a couple areas: size, agility, explosiveness, and vision. Harris’s height and build (5’11”, 221), though unexciting, is exactly what you look for in a running back. He’s tall and big enough to withstand arm tackles and finish runs forward but not so big that it’s hard for him to navigate small spaces and generally get around. If one were just to look at him, they might suspect he’d have a hard time doing anything with speed, but that really isn’t the case.
Most notably, Damien’s agility is startlingly strong. Despite his awkwardly thick build, his agility checks every box. In this compilation, you can observe as he:
- Seamlessly jump cuts and continues while moving
- Stops, avoids defenders, and resets feet when facing penetration
- Maintains downhill speed while veering off second-level defenders’ courses
- Rapidly shuffles his feet down the line until finding an opening
- Sets, then resets his feet as new threats emerge
As shown in just four plays, he can navigate just about any course set by his blocking and the defense.
He also possesses the athleticism to maximize the opportunities that his agility creates. Upon hitting a hole, Harris can take off if he sees daylight. For such a big dude, he picks up speed quickly (watch the safeties barely close the gap once he’s changed direction in the hole). After an initial burst, his top gear is as fast or faster (Adoree’ Jackson is so fast!) than just about any other stockily-built running back’s (Derrius Guice and Nick Chubb included). He probably won’t run in the 4.4 range, but his speed is much better than you could ask for in such a big dude.
Before he hits a hole, Harris must find it, of course. Fortunately for him, his vision is perfectly fine. In the three games of his that I tracked, he identified a perfect 22 out of 22 holes opened by his blocking. This stat is no fluke, either: He’s an extremely quick decision maker, adjusts course on the fly as well as anyone, and makes use of solid peripheral vision.
While all this sounds great, there are still clear (yet strange) holes to his game. Despite his strengths in agility, acceleration, and long speed, he possesses merely average short-area quickness. When making his way towards a hole, Harris looks much more like the rumbler you’d expect in such a big guy. He’s certainly not slow, but he does struggle to get around promptly when doing the simple stuff.
Meanwhile, Damien never looked afraid of contact, but still didn’t run like a 220-pounder. His pad level is inconsistent (at best) when meeting contact, as he unnecessarily allows tacklers to give him shots to the chest when he could instead lower his shoulders to gain extra yardage. In the case that he does lower his pads, he doesn’t drive his legs as hard as he could (and other times he simply dies at contact), which results in additional missed yardage. Such technique issues appear small when they cause two-to-three yard differences on a given run, but they are a key element of creation (and thus, rushing production in general).
The style issues extend into his open-field play, too. He has the requisite agility, strength, and build to be a deadly tackle-breaker, but he doesn’t seem to grasp how to make defenders miss just yet. Sometimes, he simply doesn’t have a plan when approaching vulnerable tacklers (let alone a successful one).
Altogether, these traits create a weird mishmash of a back who is athletically gifted (burst, agility, speed) except when he isn’t (quickness) that shows solid understanding of the game (vision) except when he doesn’t (running style). The good news is that both of these overlying issues can be addressed relatively easily. He could shed weight (a la Kareem Hunt) without losing much functional strength in order to improve his quickness. On the technical side, it’s not too difficult to run with better pad level and stronger driving, especially when he’s shown that he isn’t necessarily afraid of contact.
Damien Harris is one of the strangest — yet most promising — running backs in the 2018 draft class. His strengths and weaknesses are about as contradictory as you’ll find anywhere. He’s been overshadowed by the shiny piece that is Bo Scarbrough despite out-producing him. However, Harris is a solid prospect as things stand today and offers pretty high upside down the line.
If he doesn’t improve, he’ll likely make the most of what his blocking allows for him because of his vision and agility, while occasionally providing big plays with his surprising speed and burst. If he does improve, the ceiling is pretty high. With a further-polished running style, he would make much more of his physical gifts, leading to a plethora of broken tackles and additional opportunities. And if we add those dimensions to his game, he checks virtually every box of rushing production.
Putting that all together, Harris touts a medium-level floor and high ceiling. If things break the right way, he could be a huge producer in the NFL and if not, he could still provide the consistency and occasional explosiveness necessary to hold onto a lead rushing role. Thus, he currently hovers around the top five in my 2018 running back rankings, firmly behind Saquon Barkley, Guice, and Chubb, but on level ground with everyone else. For his current price (probably low), that’s a pretty good deal. If I were to buy him today for such a price, I’d just ensure not to expect his ceiling. He’s an interesting, fun player already, but there’s a big gap between what he is and what he can be.
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