Second in a position-by-position series
Depth is vital at every position in football, but it’s particularly important in the running back room, as these guys absorb a ton of punishment — usually from dudes with a significant size advantage.
The Patriots had tremendous depth at running back in 2020, and though it helped them deal with various injuries and absences, they never had the benefit of a full stable of healthy horses.
Thumper backs Damien Harris and Sony Michel suffered several injuries and were never able to form a devastating 1-2 punch. As coach Ivan Fears pointed out last month, the two were playing “musical chairs” for a good chunk of the campaign.
Rex Burkhead was having perhaps his best season before he was cut down by a torn ACL in Week 11.
James White missed time after his father, Tyrone, died in an automobile accident in September. His production fell off as the offense struggled to gain traction in the screen game, where White has thrived for the last few seasons.
J.J. Taylor showed flashes but also dealt with a quadriceps injury for several weeks in the middle of his rookie season.
Fears’s group could look significantly different in 2021, as White and Burkhead are free agents, so here’s an early look at some of the non-draft options the team could weigh.
The 2020 Patriots
Harris: A terrific camp was marred by a thumb injury, though he came back like gangbusters in Week 4 and ran like a No. 1 until a late-season ankle injury. Has a chance to be the bell-cow back in 2021.
Michel: A quadriceps injury in Week 3 derailed the third-year back, though he surged late in the season. He’s an instinctive and powerful runner but has been bitten by the injury bug often.
If Harris and Michel can stay healthy, they could form a top tandem.
“You’ve got to have some good depth,” Fears said. “You’ve got to have a guy that you can depend on to be able to carry the ball for you and be productive. And we’re very fortunate. Sony is freaking good and Damien was showing that he was going to be extremely good.”
White: One of the best receiving backs in the league and one of most respected players in the organization, the captain/free agent has said he’s open to a return. There will be competition for his services (there’s a guy in Tampa who loves him).
Burkhead: Another free agent, he had what he termed “successful” surgery on his right knee last month. Facing rehab, Burkhead will turn 31 in July, so he may not sign with a club until late in the summer.
Taylor: There’s a lot to like with Taylor, who earned a spot in camp despite a stacked deck in front of him. The 5-foot-6-inch, 185-pounder could be poised for a big jump in Year 2, especially if White, Burkhead, or both don’t re-sign. Fears sees him as a dual threat.
“Kid’s got great hands,” Fears said. “He’s really, really quick and sudden. He can get in and out of his breaks. I think he has the chance to be a combination-type player, a guy that can be used in multiple roles.
“As a runner, the guy’s got great vision. He’s hard to see. He’s so small they can’t find him. And I mean, when he plants that foot, man, he accelerates north, man. He’s like a blur.”
Jakob Johnson: The fullback is an exceptionally hard worker and willing blocker, though he is still new to the game (comparatively speaking), and there are rough edges for this exclusive-rights free agent to smooth out.
Brandon Bolden: He provides valuable tailback depth and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the playbook while also being a core special-teamer. Heading into his 10th year, Bolden is highly respected by his teammates and coaches.
Dan Vitale: The athletic fullback should be an immediate contributor in 2021 because of his varied skill set; he has shown flashes as a blocker, runner, and receiver.
The free agents
The Patriots likely won’t be major players on this market, with retaining White likely a high priority, but there are a few intriguing candidates out there, including Le’Veon Bell, Matt Breida, Theo Riddick, and Ty Montgomery.
Bell: The Patriots were interested in his services after the Jets cut him last year, and they should kick the tires again. Bell didn’t gain a ton of traction in Kansas City (see Edwards-Helaire, Clyde) but could enjoy a renaissance as part of a rotation. A devilish runner with superb hands, he’ll be looking for a shot at redemption.
Breida: Another multipurpose guy, he has excellent quickness and solid hands, and could thrive as another depth piece.
Riddick: He fits the Patriots style because of his versatility and smarts.
Montgomery: He has bounced around recently, but his ability to play in the backfield and as a receiver makes him a nice fit for a team that could use help in both groups.