The much-needed running back depth is on the way in New England.
Ezekiel Elliott will sign with the Patriots on a one-year contract worth up to $6 million, a league source confirmed Monday. The deal consists of a $1 million signing bonus, $3 million base salary, and $2 million in incentives.
Elliott, who turned 28 in July, was a free agent after getting released by Dallas in March. He worked out for the Patriots at the end of July, in addition to dining with quarterback Mac Jones, among other team personnel.
Adding a veteran running back was a top priority for the Patriots, who also hosted Darrell Henderson and Leonard Fournette. The team recently signed USFL running back C.J. Marable, but that acquisition did not preclude another addition.
Elliott will join Rhamondre Stevenson, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor, Ty Montgomery, and Marable in the running back room led by coach Vinnie Sunseri. Montgomery has not practiced since suffering a leg injury on the second day of training camp.
Stevenson will be the primary ball carrier, while Elliott will serve as a secondary, between-the-tackles option to help alleviate Stevenson’s workload. The Patriots are operating cautiously with the 25-year-old Stevenson, as his practice participation has fluctuated throughout training camp.
Elliott, who spent his previous seven NFL seasons all with the Cowboys, is no longer the force he was at the beginning of his career, but he still can have an impact as a short-yardage rusher and as a pass protector. His blitz pickup abilities will be welcomed in New England.
The biggest value add from Zeke's pass-blocking abilities comes off play-action. His ability to scan for blitzers and abort fakes to pick up rushers is top notch.— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 15, 2023
Here, Titans start in a two-high shell and rotate the safety down on a blitz. Zeke sees it all the way. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/LfhWCA2bWQ
Last season, Elliott split carries with Tony Pollard, rushing for a career-low 876 yards with 12 touchdowns and no fumbles. Injuries played a factor in his performance, as Elliott missed two games with a hyperextended right knee and sported a brace for the majority of the season.
Although health has not been a major issue for Elliott over the course of his career, it will be a factor to consider at this stage. In 2021, he suffered a knee strain and played through a partially torn PCL, but did not miss a game. In 2020, he missed one game with a calf strain.
Still, the Patriots are hopeful Elliott has enough left in the tank to produce as a backup and complement Stevenson. Unlike Stevenson, Elliott is not going to break free in the open field. He gained 10 yards or more on only 17 of his 231 carries last season. By the final four games of the season, he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry.
But Elliott can shine near the goal line, where Dallas often turned to him over Pollard. Elliott received 69.6 percent of the Cowboys’ carries inside the 5-yard line and punched in seven touchdowns from the 1-yard line.
Elliott has some experience as a pass catcher, too, though that aspect of his game diminished last season. He logged just 17 receptions for 92 yards. In 2018, however, he caught 77 passes for 567 yards and three touchdowns — the best receiving stat line of his career.
The Patriots no longer have an established third-down back, following James White’s retirement at the end of the 2021 season. Stevenson caught 69 passes for 421 yards last season, but it’s unclear if the Patriots plan to utilize him as frequently in that regard.
Strong and Montgomery (if healthy) are also in the mix for third-down snaps.
The Elliott signing will reduce the number of touches for Harris, a 2022 sixth-round pick who was going to play a much bigger role by default had the Patriots not brought in a veteran. Because the Patriots signed Elliott shows the team felt more comfortable entrusting an experienced, proven contributor over the uncertain second-year player.
Elliott announced he plans to wear No. 15 in New England. His previous number (21) is taken by safety Adrian Phillips.
The Patriots visit Dallas in Week 4 on Oct. 1.