FOXBOROUGH — Jonas Gray just rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s win over the Colts, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors and a Sports Illustrated cover. It would be only natural for him to be confused and upset about the Patriots’ signing LeGarrette Blount just four days later.
“No, no, no,” Gray said with a chuckle after Thursday’s practice, Blount’s first with the Patriots after re-signing with the team in the morning. “I take it as an opportunity to learn from somebody who’s been doing it for a long time. I think we have similar styles, so I’m excited about it.”
No, Blount wasn’t brought here to replace Gray, who became the first Patriots running back since 1983 to rush for 200 yards in a game. He was brought here to augment Gray, as another big-bodied running back who can help steamroll defenses when the weather is inclement in December and January.
The Patriots signed Blount Thursday morning to a two-year deal worth the veteran minimum plus incentives, according to a league source. But the move is more about adding cheap depth for this year and next than it is about replacing Gray or changing the face of the offense.
The Patriots have no reason to turn away from Gray after his phenomenal performance, and Shane Vereen still will have the same role as the pass-catcher and change-of-pace back. Signing Blount was like buying a no-risk insurance plan in case Gray, who has four career games under his belt and a torn ACL on his résumé, is hurt again or becomes ineffective. Or, he and Gray can team up as a powerful “thunder and thunder” duo, with both getting 10-15 carries a game and bringing fresh legs into the fourth quarter.
The Patriots will pay Blount about $43,000 for each week he is on the roster, the minimum salary for a fifth-year veteran player. If he is ineffective or has another off-field incident — Blount’s latest incident came in August when he was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession — the Patriots can cut him with no financial obligation.
Blount has not had a good 2014 season, rushing just 65 times for 266 yards and two touchdowns with the Steelers after signing a two-year, $3.85 million contract in the offseason. He did not carry the ball once in Monday night’s win over the Titans, left the sideline before the end of the game in a huff, and was cut Tuesday morning.
Despite his ineffectiveness, Bill Belichick and the Patriots quickly brought Blount back into the fold, signing him shortly after he cleared waivers.
Blount wasn’t a good fit in Pittsburgh, but the Patriots know what he can do, and know he can behave well enough to be productive in Belichick’s system.
Blount, who was originally acquired by the Patriots in a trade with Tampa Bay before the 2013 season, rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns with a healthy 5.0-yard average last year in the regular season. He ended the season with 189 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills, then followed it up with a 166-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Colts in the playoffs.
As the New England winter sets in, it doesn’t hurt to have a 250-pound power back on the roster to help plow through the end of the regular season and the playoffs, especially one who already knows the system and the guys in the locker room.
And Belichick has demonstrated that he doesn’t have much faith in the other two running backs on the depth chart, Brandon Bolden and James White. Both were leapfrogged by Gray when Stevan Ridley went down with a knee injury, and similarly will be leapfrogged by Blount when he comes into the fold.
Bolden is a core special teams player who hasn’t played an offensive snap in three games, while White has been active only twice this year as he “red-shirts” his rookie season. Belichick also “red-shirted” Ridley and Vereen in their rookie seasons of 2011 before unleashing them (at least Ridley) in 2012.
And now the Patriots have an extra running back signed for the 2015 season at a minimum salary. As of now, only Gray, White, Blount, and injured rookie Tyler Gaffney are signed for next year, as Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden are all in contract years. Vereen seems like a good bet to be re-signed, but the Blount signing just might signal the end of Ridley’s and Bolden’s tenure here.
So despite his success last Sunday, you won’t hear Gray complaining about Blount being brought into the fold. He knows it will just make the Patriots deeper and better.
“The thing about this sport, this profession, is you never know what might happen, so you have to keep focused and keep grinding,” Gray said.
“The running back position, I don’t know what it is. We have a camaraderie. You would’ve thought me and LeGarrette have known each other for years, the way we were out there today.”