Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Running back
In the running
This is the tenth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots by Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry as we head into the offseason. Today's position: Running back
Dion Lewis, 25, signed through 2017
James White, 24, 2017
Brandon Bolden, 26, 2016
Tyler Gaffney, 24, 2017
LeGarrette Blount, 29, 2015
Joey Iosefa, 24, 2016
Steven Jackson, 32, 2015
James Develin, 27, 2015
Two X-factors here. How soon and how well LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis return from injury. Lewis, who went down with an ACL, was playing as well as any back in the NFL when he went down. In seven games, he touched the ball 99 times for 622 yards and four touchdowns. The eye-popping number of tackles eluded meant that defenses had to allocate a ton of attention to him. And playing against an offense with a full-speed Gronk and Edelman, there just weren’t enough bodies to go around. Blount may have seemed just OK before he went down, but the difference between him running against nickel and dime defenses and Steven Jackson or Brandon Bolden doing it was noticeable. Blount’s coming off a hip fracture. Being a big dude and 29 years old, it might take some time before he’s full-go again which means the Patriots may not re-sign the pending free agent right away. It’s been an interesting relationship between the team and Blount since he got here – they’ve thrown him a lifeline twice when he was on the outs and he’s been a good player for them. We’ll see what happens this time. Bolden is a good second-tier guy as is White who is serviceable but not dynamic. It’s worth wondering how different the Patriots offense may have looked if James Develin hadn’t gone down with his ACL in the preseason. Could he have been helpful at the point-of-attack in the running game? Given the team a little more diversity? Develin’s a free agent but I’d expect him to return. Finally, there’s Tyler Gaffney. He’s done nothing in two seasons in the NFL but be injured. He needs a great offseason to stick. Will the Patriots shop for a new back in free agency or the draft? They’ve drafted just eight backs in 16 Bill Belichick-led drafts. If they do decide to make a move, expect it to be bargain bin free agent style and – because of the uncertainty as to what can be promised – something that comes later in the spring.
The Patriots running game was a non-factor in the AFC Championship Game and it was one of the reasons for their undoing. Posing no threat to churn out yardage on the ground, the Broncos defense was allowed to target the area a few yards behind center behind Patriots center Bryan Stork and, essentially, race to be the first one to quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots became predictable, and Denver teed off. It wasn't all on the running backs -- part of the reason they couldn't gain any yardage on the ground was because there wasn't much room with which to work. Still, it's a spot worth evaluating this offseason. Like several other spots on the team's roster, the running back position was decimated by injury. The power running game took a hit when fullback James Develin broke his leg in the preseason, and then in Week 14, LeGarrette Blount suffered a season-ending hip injury. In Week 9, the team's best all-round back, Dion Lewis, tore his ACL, which thrust James White into a more prominent role. Though White had his moments as a productive receiver, he wasn't the same dynamic, all-purpose runner that Lewis was when healthy. The question is now, how does this group come together in 2016? Lewis could be the team's primary "sub" back if all goes well with his rehabilitation, which might make White the No. 2 option there once again. If the Patriots wanted to add a free agent pass-catching back, like Matt Forte, it might make sense.
Given Lewis' injury history and the importance of having a dependable dual-threat blocker and receiver at that spot in the Patriots offense means that the more depth they have, the better. Bigger question marks surround the "big" back role that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels like to employ depending on the situation and the game plan. Blount, who has enjoyed his time in New England and gets along swimmingly with the coaching staff, will be a free agent and could potentially end up elsewhere. Steven Jackson will probably retire after his last-ditch effort for a Super Bowl with the Patriots. Brandon Bolden should maintain his place as a versatile "sub" or "big" back replacement while serving primarily in the kicking game. James Develin, a restricted free agent, could return as the team's fullback, but that's a role that is typically considered separate from what the Patriots do with their "big" backs. And Tyler Gaffney, who has suffered season-ending injuries in each of the last two preseasons, will have to prove he can remain healthy before he's considered for a significant job. Keep an eye on Joey Iosefa who signed to a future contract this offseason and will likely be given a chance to win a role in camp. The Patriots liked what he did as a member of the practice squad, and they haven't been afraid of using low-cost options in the backfield in the past. If you're wondering which Patriots player has a chance to be the next diamond-in-the-rough type, it could be him.