FOXBORO -- Dion Lewis was the best pure runner to wear a Patriots uniform since an inspired Corey Dillon back in 2004. That’s a mighty long time to go between elite backs but that’s also what happens when you have the best quarterback in NFL history on your side.
But despite his terrific skills and season, it wasn’t as if the Pats let Lewis be the team’s bell cow back until the final two weeks of the regular season. It was then the shifty yet powerful Lewis put the offense on his shoulder, combining for 61 total touches against AFC East foes Buffalo and New York. That amounted to essentially 30% of Lewis’ workload for the entire season (180 rushes/32 receptions).
So how will the Pats change with Lewis gone but not forgotten (they’ll see him week 10 at Tennessee)? Not a hell of a lot. Bill Belichick has approach that position with a by committee approach and there’s nothing to suggest that will change less than a week in training camp. What is clear, however, is that the best back on the roster to this point has been Rex Burkhead.
The veteran runner impressed during his first season with New England and earned a three-year contract in the offseason. It’s safe to say Burkhead’s ability warrants more than the 64 rushes he got a year ago but that was in part because the 28-year old was plagued by injuries, missing a half dozen games, and Lewis’ re-emergence at the position. Burkhead looks as quick as ever during the early days of camp, and his jump cut ability is damn near close to what Lewis provided. He should bring some big play pop to the attack both as a runner and, of course, as a pass receiver, where you could see Burkhead find himself in the slot on occasion.
First-round rookie Sony Michel has shown signs that he can handle the early stages of the team’s passing attack and also brought some power to the goal line. There is no question the staff is high on his ability (duh) but Michel will have to work hard to prove he’s reliable, especially when it comes to holding onto the rock. That was an issue in college and has flashed again during spring and summer camps.
No one ever worries about the team’s top passing back, James White. He has come a mighty long way from his rookie season when several defensive players privately thought Belichick had swung and missed. Now White is as reliable as they come, a terrific receiver out of the backfield but also someone who has improved his run ability between the tackles. Pencil him in for 55 catches, maybe more with the concerns at wide receiver.
After that, there may be an open spot for a power back. Mike Gillislee scored three touchdowns in the season opener last year then regressed. By the end of the year, he was a healthy scratch although to his credit, didn’t make waves publicly or otherwise. Due about 2-and-a-half million dollars this year, he would seem to be very much on the bubble, duking it out with a much cheaper one-year contract alternative, former Bengals RB Jeremy Hill. Hill and Gillislee have both had their moments in the red zone early in camp but the latter missed Sunday’s session and availability - as we know - is very important to Belichick. I guess Brandon Bolden could be an option as a big back too but we’ve read that story and it always seems to end the same way.
Former Vanderbilt star Ralph Webb seems ticketed for the practice squad if he can show any signs this summer. Belichick walked and talked with the rookie for a good 7 or 8 minutes Saturday before the start of practice and it’s also important to remember the team coughed up a decent chunk of change for the undrafted runner to get him on their roster.