If Patriots lose dual-threat backs, Miami's Walton an interesting fit

If Patriots lose dual-threat backs, Miami's Walton an interesting fit

The Patriots will have a choice in front of them soon: Hold onto one of their most dynamic offensive playmakers by paying market price, or move on and take a less expensive shot on someone in free agency or the draft. 

The player in question is Dion Lewis. The position Lewis plays helps complicate the discussion.

Shelling out big money for running backs simply hasn't been a part of Bill Belichick's team-building philosophy in recent years, and if that trend continues, there's a chance Lewis is moving on. Then what? 

Rex Burkhead is a free agent as well. He should command less than Lewis after an injury-riddled 2017, but there's no guarantee he'll be back. Once the new league year begins, options on the open market could include Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco's Carlos Hyde and Miami's Damien Williams. 

If the Patriots were interested in the free-agent market at the position, there will be limits on the lengths they'd be willing to go. James White received a three-year $12 million deal last offseason. Burkhead received a one-year $3.15 million deal. Mike Gillislee picked up a two-year, $6.4 million deal as a restricted free agent.

Given the variance in production the Patriots saw from those players, one would understand if they were wary dishing out significant cash for another player at that spot -- particularly with other spots on the roster that need addressing. 

The most cost-effective way to go about re-stocking the position would likely be through the draft. And after a few days in Indianapolis for this year's NFL Scouting Combine, it's clear that this is a highly-regarded class of running backs.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley is inarguably the best player in the group, but the top layer of backs in this year's crop is deep. There are as many as six runners who could go in the first two rounds come May. 

That still may be too rich for New England's blood. In the last 11 Patriots drafts, they've only taken one back in the first two rounds. Shane Vereen was a second-rounder back in 2011. The Patriots did conduct a formal interview with Georgia's Sony Michele, who's expected to be among the first three or four backs taken, though, so who knows. 

If you take a look at the next tier of runners, one name that has stood out as a potential Patriots fit early in the process is Miami's Mark Walton. He measured in at 5-foot-10, 202 pounds in Indy, and his running style has been painted as Patriots-esque.'s Lance Zierlein compared Walton to James White. The Pro Football Focus guys have hit him with a Lewis comp

Walton projects as a dual-threat player. He saw 60 targets in his first two seasons, per PFF, and he's a threat to create a big play any time he touches the ball with a few 80-plus yard runs to his name. An ankle injury limited to just four games last season, but he says he's healthy now. He ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine. 

If a team is looking for a back who can handle adversity, it'd be hard to find anyone who's been through what Walton has. His mother, Kimberly Rogers, died a little over a year ago after suffering a stroke. About a month before that, his daughter Ma'Lani was born prematurely. Walton's father was murdered when he was young. His 15-year-old sister will travel with him to whichever city he calls home next. 

Walton said he met with Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears in Indy. 

"I think the type of guy I am, I think the energy I bring in the room and my story, it speaks for itself," Walton said last week. "The type of person that I am, my background, where I came from, I overcame a lot of things and still here today, speaking among you guys. I didn't give up. That's a huge notice to those team that I could have given up. Once my dad passed, my mom passed, I could have thrown everything away. But I was able to stick it out."

Walton will get a shot to stick it out somewhere in the league. Whether or not his shot -- or that of any other rookie back -- comes from the Patriots could hinge on the lengths Belichick is willing to go to retain a known commodity at that position.


'Leprechaun' Gronk dropping more hints about future plans - sort of

'Leprechaun' Gronk dropping more hints about future plans - sort of

Rob Gronkowski, decked out in his finest St. Patrick's Day duds over the weekend in Nashville, reportedly tried to shed some light on his NFL future.

Of course, while Gronk was doing Gronk things, he told a Patriots fan one thing and a reporter another.

Breech is an NFL writer for His father is former Cincinnati Bengals kicker Jim Breech. And the "69ers" aren't a real team.


AFC East is starting to prepare for post-Brady life

AFC East is starting to prepare for post-Brady life

The Patriots' "direction" never really changes. They're always "going for it" because they're always one of the best teams in the league. 

The rest of the AFC East is usually in flux. The other teams range from hoping for 8-8 to trying to bottom out in hopes of a high draft pick. Yet right now, it seems the stars are aligning and that the Jets, Bills and Dolphins all have the mindset: Change things now and be ready to pounce once Brady is gone. 

The Jets traded up to No. 3 on Saturday, assuring themselves a chance at one of this draft's top quarterbacks. The Bills, with picks Nos. 12 and 22, are expected by pundits to make a similar move up. The Dolphins, fresh off cutting bait with Ndamukong Suh in an attempt at a culture change, have the 11th pick and could use it on a quarterback to either push or replace Ryan Tannehill. 

None of the three teams are close to pushing the Patriots as long as Brady's around, even with the Bills coming off a season in which they reached the playoffs. Yet there's a two-or-three-year plan on which all three teams could have designs: Get the quarterback now, build around him and be in a good situation by the time Brady is done. 

We've seen these teams try to rebuild before during the Brady Era, with only limited success. Mark Sanchez worked out better in New York than anyone could have initially expected, but that success lasted way shorter than any believers could have hoped. Now, it seems they try again. 

Over in Buffalo, the end of the Tyrod Taylor era hardly means the beginning of the Nathan Peterman era. Those two first-rounders should easily be able to get the Bills into the top five, and they've also got two second-rounders and two third-rounders. Hell, they have the pieces to get to No. 1 if Cleveland is bold enough to pass on their choice of Darnold/Rosen/Allen/Mayfield. 

The Dolphins are in the more interesting spot. Tannehill missed all of last season and he's 29. If you're six years into your career and your team still isn't totally sure if you can be one of the better QBs in the league, you probably aren't one of the better QBs in the league. At the very least, Lamar Jackson should be there at No. 11. They could also trade up. 

At the start of last season, the Patriots had far and away the two best QBs in the AFC East. Now, it stands to reason that at least two of their divisional opponents (the Jets and Bills) will come away with what they hope are franchise quarterbacks. And if any of these guys hit, the Pats will have gone from the best QB situation in the NFL to seeing some actual competition waiting for them by the time their own quarterback is done. 

Of course, all three of these teams usually suck at everything, so it shouldn't be a big deal.