FOXBOROUGH — After Week 1, Rhamondre Stevenson seemed destined for the shelf, a place Patriots rookie running backs have become acquainted with over the years.
Stevenson, drafted in the fourth round earlier this year, had earned snaps in New England’s season opener against the Miami Dolphins, only to fumble on his second touch — a 9-yard reception in the first quarter. The turnover marked the end of his involvement in that game and, it was presumed, the foreseeable future.
The Patriots listed Stevenson as one of their inactive players for each of the team’s next three games, indicating he was likely headed for a redshirt year. Shane Vereen (2011), James White (2014), and Damien Harris (2019) all started their careers on the sidelines after getting drafted by the Patriots, and went on to earn productive roles beginning in their second seasons.
But things have changed for Stevenson.
White, a critical piece of New England’s offense, suffered a season-ending hip injury in Week 3. The Patriots, once considered to have a glut of running backs, now seemed thin at the position, with just Harris, Brandon Bolden, and J.J. Taylor in the mix.
When Taylor fumbled in Week 4, his spot in the rotation suddenly seemed in jeopardy, too. Taylor was a healthy scratch for Weeks 5 and 6, while Stevenson was active.
Thrust back into the action, Stevenson appears to be adjusting well to his new opportunity. It may have taken him a little time to get reacclimated, as running backs coach Ivan Fears noted Stevenson was playing too cautiously against the Houston Texans.
“He was almost very nervous to carry the ball,” Fears said earlier in October. “We can’t play that way. He’s got to let himself play. And I think he will. I really do.”
Stevenson has since looked more comfortable.
“He turned it loose, didn’t he?” Fears said. “He’s going to turn it loose, and we’ll be all right. Believe me, we will be all right.
“I like the kid. He’s a conscientious kid trying to do what’s right. He’s made some great strides in the few weeks that we had to sit him down. I’m really happy, and I hope he has a chance to show everybody what he’s really all about.”
Against the Dallas Cowboys last week, Stevenson found the end zone on a 1-yard rush for his first career NFL touchdown. He finished the game with 23 rushing yards on five carries, along with 39 yards on three receptions.
“It’s just a confidence boost, just to know that my teammates can trust me, my coaches can trust me,” Stevenson said. “It just gives you more confidence and makes you play a lot more free.”
At 6 feet and 263 pounds, Stevenson is a big-bodied back with solid speed, making him difficult to tackle and dangerous at the goal line. In three preseason games, Stevenson rushed for 216 yards on 30 carries for five touchdowns.
The 23-year-old Stevenson, who played two seasons at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., before transferring to Oklahoma, has drawn comparisons to former Patriot LeGarrette Blount for his size and style. Stevenson, who called Blount one of his favorite players to watch, said the two have spoken.
This season, the Patriots rank 26th in the league in rushing yards, 27th in rushing attempts per game, 25th in average yards per carry, and 23rd in rushing first downs.
Harris is the team’s lead back when healthy, earning the most snaps and carries. Bolden saw an uptick in playing time following White’s injury, but there’s still a real opening for Stevenson.
On Sunday, Stevenson played more snaps than Bolden for the first time, 18-11. His recent contributions in the passing game will only help his case for an increased workload.
“I’m never complacent,” Stevenson said after returning to the field in Week 5. “I never get comfortable with anything. I always got to get better. That’s just the mindset I have.”