Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. On Wednesday, we hit on tight end and if Jimmy Graham is a fit. On Thursday, we asked if Super Bowl champ Nigel Bradham is just the linebacker the Patriots need. Today, we're looking whether there are any viable running back options for the Patriots on the open market?
Dion Lewis played it perfectly. He stayed healthy for the first time in his career and had the best season of his career in a contract year. Had the Patriots opted to use him as their No. 1 back through the first month of the 2017 season - a job that was handled by Mike Gillislee - Lewis could have hit free agency with even better numbers.
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Now, the Patriots have to be prepared to take on 2018 without their dynamic dual-threat back. They could also find themselves without fellow all-purpose runner Rex Burkhead, who is also scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next week.
The Patriots still have Gillislee under contract. They have James White and Brandon Bolden under contract as well. But those backs don't provide what Lewis provided consistently, what Burkhead provided when healthy last season: unpredictability.
With Lewis on the field, the Patriots could run or pass. They could align in the I-formation, then split all parties out wide and still strike fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators.
This begs the question, if Lewis and Burkhead are gone, how would the Patriots go about filling that multi-purpose void? The free agent market will boast a good-but-not-great group of backs.
With Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell playing on the franchise tag, San Francisco's Carlos Hyde is the best of the bunch. Frank Gore won't be retained by the Colts, but he wants to keep playing. DeMarco Murray ran into a similar situation in Tennessee, where he was let go in favor of younger options. Doug Martin, Jonathan Stewart, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles and Isaiah Crowell are also available.
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The most intriguing fit, though, might be Jerick Mckinnon of the Vikings. He helped form a committee backfield in Minnesota in his first four seasons, but the 25-year-old has proven to be an effective receiver out of the backfield (51 catches in 2017), improved in pass-protection, and a capable runner when given the opportunity.
McKinnon averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2017, but Pro Football Focus gave him the sixth-best overall grade of any running back last season. He forced 30 missed tackles, which was more than Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara (28), and his average yards after contact per carry (2.6) was the same as Bell's.
Because of the timeshare he dealt with as a member of the Vikings, and because his numbers aren't exactly eye-popping, McKinnon shouldn't command a huge contract. A deal in line with what White received from the Patriots last offseason -- three years at $4 million -- would seem reasonable.
Would the Patriots be willing to go there?
The answer will depend on how highly they value McKinnon's tape. This is thought to be a draft class deep with running backs, and so perhaps Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio feel as though they can find their next all-purpose runner somewhere in the middle rounds. Or perhaps they'd be happy bringing back Burkhead and hoping he stays healthy.
Because the Patriots may have to stretch in order to find the money to pay a left tackle, a corner, a pass-rusher and provide their All-Pro tight end with a raise... going with a cost-effective option in the draft and re-signing Burkhead on another short-term deal might be their best bet. Even if an enticing talent like McKinnon won't exactly break the bank.