New England is one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. While there was certainly skepticism surrounding rookie QB Mac Jones, most doubters had their sights set on the lack of talent at the Patriots’ offensive skill positions.
Kendrick Bourne? He was the No. 4 option on the 49ers last season.
Nelson Agholor? You mean the guy whose inconsistency led to him bouncing around from team to team in recent years?
Jakobi Meyers? He’d never caught a touchdown before.
There was some talent at the tight end position with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, and Damien Harris had shown the potential to be a solid back. However, I’d argue that at the start of the season, Rhamondre Stevenson was the most talented player on the Patriots. He’s a well-rounded back who shows great patience behind the line of scrimmage, and as Damien Harris struggles with concussion protocols ahead of the team’s match against the Atlanta Falcons, Stevenson might have an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a feature role once again.
Harris was out last week against Cleveland with a concussion. All Stevenson did in his first career start was rush for 100 yards on 20 carries and take in four of his five targets for 14 more yards through the air. That’s more receptions than Harris has had in a single game his entire career. Stevenson’s mark of 5 yards per carry last week also marked his second game of the season recording at least that amount. Despite not recording a single carry in Weeks 2, 3, 4, and 7, Stevenson has as many games with 5.0 yards per carry as Harris does this year, and Stevenson has done it against two of the top-13 teams in the NFL in terms of yards per carry against (Cleveland and Carolina). Harris’ two games were against the Cowboys and Jets, who rank 17th and 29th, respectively, in that category.
I know it’s a slippery slope on which I’m comparing Harris and Stevenson, because each running back is used in different ways and game plans can vary wildly between weeks. We all know how deliberate Bill Belichick can be with his personnel decisions, but it goes to show just how consistent Stevenson can be. He may not be as explosive as Harris, who has ripped off five runs of 20-plus yards this season — tied for the fifth-most among running backs — but Stevenson has been freakishly good at generating positive yardage. Stevenson has only suffered six runs for a loss this season, and half of those came in New England’s Week 5 game against the Texans, where the entire Patriots’ offensive unit struggled to get it going for the first three quarters.
This isn’t an attack on Harris, by the way. I think he’s a great halfback. He and Stevenson obviously serve different roles in the New England offense, and while Harris might have a slight edge as a pure runner (quicker acceleration allows for more outside zone options with Harris), Stevenson has the edge up the middle and as a pass-catcher. Stevenson does struggle as a pass-blocker, an area where Harris has thrived the last five weeks, so perhaps that’s why Belichick has opted to keep Harris the feature back rather than use both in more of a committee.
Stevenson has his problems as well. After breaking into the secondary, he often focuses too much on going East-to-West and will lose yardage he could’ve had if he’d just kept moving upfield. He also has a hesitancy to bounce outside the offensive line, which does play to Stevenson’s strengths as a runner (he’s fantastic at maintaining his footing in traffic and getting yards after contact), but is evident of tunnel vision on his part. However, Stevenson is still a rookie and these issues can be ironed out over the course of the next year or so.
While rookies like Najee Harris, Michael Carter, and Javonte Williams are all receiving well-deserved praise for their efforts in 2021, Stevenson has fallen by the wayside, likely because of the system he finds himself in. He may not get the most opportunities or be the flashiest runner out there, but he gets the job done every time. If he gets an opportunity to shine in tonight’s game, don’t be surprised if he starts competing with Harris for lead-back touches for the remainder of the season.