Ivan Fears knew success was coming.
The Patriots veteran assistant coach wasn’t sure how he was going to deploy his running back troops but he was confident the pieces were in place for a successful ground attack.
“Oh, we’re going to run the ball,’’ he said before the 2016 season. “We’re going to work hard and we’re going to run the ball. You can be sure.’’
New England piled up 1,872 yards in the regular season, averaging 4 yards on 482 attempts with 19 touchdowns. The rushing game perfectly complemented the passing game (4,456 yards, 36 TDs), as defenses couldn’t simply drop extra men in coverage for fear they would be gashed up front.
The chief pounder was LeGarrette Blount. The eighth-year veteran with fullback size (6 feet, 250 pounds) and tailback feet enjoyed the best season of his career. Blount rushed for 1,161 yards and an NFL-high 18 TDs.
He provided some of the top highlights of the season. His hurdle over Miami’s Byron Maxwell in Week 2 showed his deceptive athleticism while his power run vs. Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game (on which he carried half the defense down the field) showed his obvious strength.
The chief question now is will the 30-year-old be back? He’s expressed a desire to return, and he is well-liked in the organization. The feeling is that a deal will get done sooner than later, but both sides are exploring options just in case.
The Patriots have had free agents Adrian Peterson, Mike Gillislee, and Damien Williams in for recent visits. The latter two are restricted, so the Patriots would forfeit a draft pick if they acquired either one.
Dion Lewis returned in midseason after having a pair of knee surgeries following an ACL tear in 2015. Lewis flashed some of his signature electric quickness and moves upon his return, and he is bound to look even better as he continues to gain strength and confidence.
At 5-8, 195 pounds, Lewis doesn’t have the size to be a workhorse, but when used in a rotation, he can wear down a defense with fresh legs. He’s equally adept at running the ball from the backfield or working as a receiver.
Lewis also became the team’s primary kick returner late in the season.
Super Bowl hero James White returns, and he’ll again be depended on because of his versatility. Like Lewis, White (5-10, 205) can run from the backfield (the pony look with Lewis and White paired behind Tom Brady had some success) or line up as a receiver.
White clearly does his best work in space, where he can use his jukes, jives, and stutter-steps to make defenders miss in the open space.
Rex Burkhead, who was signed as a free agent from the Bengals, has been described as a Swiss Army knife kind of back because of his ability to do everything well. He didn’t get a ton of offensive touches in Cincinnati, but judging by his one-year deal ($3.15 million), the Patriots think he can be more than just a special teams standout.
Brandon Bolden had a very limited role in the offense in 2016, but he is a more-than-capable depth runner and receiver, and also one of a handful of exceptional special-teamers on New England.
D.J. Foster split his time between the active roster and the practice squad (and between back and receiver) and the 6-foot, 195-pounder will be in the mix this summer.
James Develin is among the best fullbacks in the business. He didn’t get a single carry last season, but his crushing blocks never go unnoticed by his teammates or his opponents. Glenn Gronkowski provides depth here.
Primary 2016 starters: LeGarrette Blount, James White.
Expected 2017 starters: White, Dion Lewis.
53-man depth chart: White, Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, James Develin (fullback).
Possible draft option: De’Veon Smith, Michigan (seventh round/UFA). The Patriots haven’t drafted a running back since White in 2014, and probably won’t this year, either. However, Smith is intriguing because of his size (5 feet 11 inches, 220 pounds) and power running style. He showed excellent determination and stamina in a big-boy conference and could carve out a niche, particularly if Blount (or a another veteran thumper) isn’t signed.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org