FOXBOROUGH — As running back after running back came off the big board at the NFL Draft you could practically hear the groans of Patriots Nation.
Considered by many a position of need in New England, 23 running backs — from Ezekiel Elliot in the first round to Zac Brooks in the seventh — heard their names called, but none would be calling Gillette Stadium home.
One guy who was watching the draft play out along with everyone else — Patriots running back coach Ivan Fears — understands the emotions the fans felt. But unlike the fans, Fears isn’t wringing his hands. He knows there’s a long way to go.
“I think everyone thinks of the draft as the end all. It’s not. It’s just the beginning,’’ said Fears. “There’s free agency and there’s the draft, but the building process is something that continues. We’re not done, we’re continuing. We looked at a lot of guys, we liked a lot of guys but the timing and everything just didn’t fit for whether we should take that guy.’’
Fears is welcoming back a solid group of Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James White, Joey Iosefa, and fullback James Develin. The Patriots also signed free agent Donald Brown, while undrafted free agent D.J. Foster of Arizona State tweeted he is Foxborough-bound.
Fears did acknowledge that while watching the draft there were some times that he thought a player might be a good fit only to see them land in a different spot.
“Of course,’’ said Fears, now in his 20th year with the team and 26th in the NFL. “Or I might say, ‘Oh, I’m surprised he went there. Surprised he’s down there.’ All those reactions happen. You have opinions on guys and that’s part of the evaluation process.
“But when it’s all said and done you know we’re going to make the best choice for the time we’re at and what’s left on the board. That’s what Bill [Belichick] and all of them go through all that work for to prepare for everything and, hey, I gotta trust that. That’s what I trust.’’
Fears has a ton of confidence in his corps of runners, but knows that if reinforcements were needed, the appropriate steps would be taken.
“I know that if my room was empty, we would do something. We would figure something out. My room is not empty,’’ said Fears. “You have to think about how happy we are with Dion and LG both playing. Look at who we got. We’re not crying the blues, believe me.”
When asked if not drafting a running back was an indication the team feels good about the rehab of Lewis (knee) and Blount (hip), both of whom ended up on injured reserve last season, Fears said lots of factors went into the decision.
“I’d say it’s the whole total picture. We got to throw everything in it. Not just their recovery and where they are but how things fell at the draft, as far as we’re concerned, as far as how it played out with our board. It’s a big picture — it’s not a small item. If the right guy fell at the right time, you’re going to take him . . . You do a lot of work — months of work — to get to that board the way you want it. You gotta trust. That’s what you’ve been doing all this time. You gotta trust it. I trust our procedures.’’
After adding nine players through the draft, the Patriots have signed an additional 10 players as undrafted free agents, including a trio of cornerbacks, addressing a position that was thin much of last season.
New England signed corners V’Angelo Bentley (Illinois), Cre’Von LeBlanc (Florida Atlantic), and Jonathan Jones (Auburn). Also agreeing to terms were free safety Devonta Burns (Texas A&M), linebacker C.J. Johnson (Mississippi), and defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton (Mississippi).
In addition to Foster, other offensive players signed include tight ends Steve Scheu (Vanderbilt) and Bryce Williams (East Carolina), and receiver De’Runnya Wilson (Mississippi State).
Though there was no official word from the team on the signings, the players all announced their plans via Twitter, with the exception of Wilson, who chose Instagram.
Faulk fits role
Fears was pleased with Kevin Faulk’s decision to don Tom Brady’s jersey while announcing a Patriots pick Friday night.
“Oh fantastic, fantastic. You know that’s my boy,’’ said Fears. “Kevin and Brady are like this [he put two fingers together], so you know he was going to do something, just had to wait and see. I loved it.”
Fears also said Faulk has his vote for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
“What he did here, what he’s been able to do for this program, through the years, leadership role. He’s definitely my guy,’’ he said.
Option called on Cooper
According to NFL Network, the Patriots have declined the fifth-year option on guard Jonathan Cooper, who was acquired as part of the Chandler Jones deal with the Cardinals. Cooper would have been due nearly $12 million in 2017, so the move isn’t a surprise. The Patriots still can re-sign Cooper prior to him becoming an unrestricted free agent in March . . . The team also waived linebacker James Vaughters and cornerback Rashaan Melvin. Vaughters was signed to a futures deal in January while Melvin saw limited action in eight games last season after he was claimed off waivers from the Ravens in October . . . Count special teams coach Joe Judge among those hoping Nate Ebner goes for Olympic gold with the US Rugby team. “We couldn’t be more excited for Nate with what he’s doing with rugby. We’re all very supportive — the players are very supportive, the coaches are very supportive. We’re excited to get him back, but we’re also excited to watch him compete in rugby.’’