Damien Harris Stuck in Neutral After Mediocre Combine

Now that we have official combine testing results for the majority of 2019 NFL Draft class, it’s time for a quick review of former Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris.1

THE EARLY YEARS

As a five-star prospect, Harris had a multitude of scholarship offers after finishing second in Kentucky state history in total career touchdowns (122). As a freshman in 2015, he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry on 46 rushes playing behind two future NFL RBs in Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. In 2016, Harris saw an exponential bump in opportunity putting up a 146-1037-2 rushing line. He also chipped in with 12 receptions, two of which went for touchdowns. Forty percent of his carries went for a first down or a TD. He also got more efficient later in games averaging 8.0 yards per carry in second halves compared to 6.5 yards per carry in first halves.

2017 AND BEYOND

As a junior in 2017, Harris remained an extremely efficient runner averaging 7.4 yards per carry, seventh-best in the country. He also scored a team-high 11 TDs and hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season. Through 12 games in 2018, Harris again faced major competition for touches in a deep and talented backfield. The emergence of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide passing game also limited the necessity for a voluminous run game.

Harris’s 126-771-7 rushing line is a bit underwhelming for a runner with a potential first-round grade. Despite a dip in production in his final season, Harris is one of just 16 RBs since 2000 to average 6.5 yards per carry on 450-plus career carries. The majority of that cohort have found success in the NFL including Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Marshawn Lynch, and Dalvin Cook.

AGE AND PRODUCTION

Arbitrary statistical cutoffs and comparisons can get anyone excited about Harris as a prospect. But when we dig deeper into his production profile, red flags do emerge. Harris’ minimal receiving production and complete lack of return game involvement hurt his outlook. According to research by Anthony Amico, RBs that fail to achieve a breakout season2 have historically been unreliable fantasy assets:

Breakout AgeTotalHitsPercent HitAvg Best PPR
<=21622743.5%187.1
>21541222.2%130.2
None911112.1%93.7

Back in March I explored the idea of First-Year Workhorse Scores (FYWS) and their importance in terms of future production. Harris’ 0.03 FYWS falls well short of the 0.25 threshold I found to be significant. Just 11 percent of the RBs to score 200 or more PPR points since 2012 recorded a FYWS of 0.07 or worse. Harris’ age (21.9) should also be taken into consideration. Blair Andrews found that RBs who played their rookie season at age 22 produce a top-24 season nearly half as often as their 21-year-old counterparts:

ATHLETICISM

Referencing the RotoViz Combine Explorer we can take a closer look at Harris’ athletic measureables.
damienharris1
Electing to skip the agility drills, we’re left with an incomplete picture, but we do know that Harris is slightly above average in terms of explosion. An average speed score, however, gives a glimpse of his ceiling. Shawn Siegele notes that Harris’s proponents will look to Kareem Hunt and/or Alvin Kamara as high-end comparisons, both being inside a reasonable range of outcomes. But with an RB Prospect Lab score of 18, Harris is far from a sure thing.

OUTLOOK

Harris is an older prospect who consistently ceded touches to younger RBs while at Alabama. But his outstanding efficiency metrics place him in elite company and point to his potential ceiling as a runner. Investing an early rookie pick on a prospect like Harris feels risky given his profile. But if he does end up a top-60 pick at next month’s draft, it’ll be even riskier to write him off altogether.

  1. The original, pre-combine version of this article was published on December 28th, 2018.  (back)
  2. defined as averaging at least 130 adjusted all-purpose-yards per game  (back)