FOXBORO -- The running back position has been one of the fascinating to watch on the Patriots roster this spring and that shouldn't change as the team transitions to training camp later this summer when pads are introduced.
It's a deep group. Adding Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to Dion Lewis, James White and second-year back DJ Foster provided the group a measure of insurance that it hasn't had in recent memory.
Though it's difficult to get a true sense for how backs stack up when all players are clad in shorts and t-shirts, here's a quick rundown of what we saw from each member of the running back room during three days of minicamp this week . . .
It was an abrupt end to a bumpy 2016 season for Lewis. By the time playoffs rolled around, he appeared to have regained most of the explosiveness he put on display the year before, but he ended the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl with a hamstring injury that opened the door for James White to continue to get the bulk of the work in overtime. This spring -- during what's essentially a passing camp -- Lewis seems to be healthy again, showing fluidity in and out of his breaks. On Thursday, he conveyed his excitement to be available this time of year. "I love to play football," he said. "Whenever I get to do that, no matter if it's training camp, OTAs, the season, whenever I get the chance to do that I'm happy to do it, I'm blessed to do it. I just come out here, work as hard as I can every day and try to do the best that I can."
White has picked up where he left off in February. After signing a new deal this offseason, he looks unchanged in terms of the level of detail with which he attacks practices. There were times during certain passing periods where offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to use White as the example for the rest of the group in terms of how to run a certain route based on a certain defensive look. He's precise, and it's not difficult to see why he's as trusted as he is. On Wednesday, White took a bulk of reps with Jimmy Garoppolo and the second offensive group, but that appeared to be a situation in which the Patriots coaching staff simply wanted to get Rex Burkhead some time with Tom Brady to develop a rapport between the two.
The versatile former Cincinnati Bengal had his moments during minicamp. On Day 2, he was a dependable safety valve for Brady in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods. There are times, however, where it's apparent Burkhead has a way to go in terms of understanding the route-running nuances taught in New England. In periods with no defense and McDaniels running the show, Burkhead spent some extra time with his new offensive coordinator to better understand how a particular route should be run given a particular look shown by the defensive back in front of him. Depths of routes and where exactly to make cuts was also harped on. Burkhead has the physical tools to be an effective option in the passing game -- he was used out of the slot in Cincinnati at times -- but it should come as no surprise that it will take him some time before being fully up-to-date on the expectations of his new club.
This wasn't Gillislee's week to shine. Because OTAs focus on the passing game, Gillislee wasn't given much of an opportunity to showcase his between-the-tackles skill set. We'll have a better idea of what he can do when the pads come on in training camp. At this point, it seems safe to classify him as the team's next "big back" -- a role last occupied by LeGarrette Blount.
Foster has already made a handful of difficult catches during practice periods open to reporters this spring. And in terms of the quarterbacks with which he's worked, Foster has probably jumped around the most. He caught a touchdown from Brady a couple of weeks ago that had Brady celebrating like it was a game-winning score in January. He's also caught passes from Jimmy Garoppolo and spent time lined up next to Jacoby Brissett. It could be an uphill climb for Foster to crack the 53-man roster with so much talent at the position, but it looked like he did nothing but help himself during minicamp.
Bolden continued to take reps with what would be considered the team's top group of coverage players on the punt team. That will be his ticket to a roster spot as there are several players he would have to leapfrog to earn a role offensively.
The undrafted 6-foot, 225-pound back out of Iowa doesn't exactly fit the mold as a pass-catching back. "Yeah, I think guys like that, that’s less of their game," Belichick said when asked what Daniels could show during OTAs. He'll have a chance to run with a little more physicality later this summer.