Patriots

Could McKinnon fill the Lewis role for Patriots?

Could McKinnon fill the Lewis role for Patriots?

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. 

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.

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. 
 

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Popped and Dropped: Michael Bennett flashes pass-rush prowess for Patriots in preseason debut

Popped and Dropped: Michael Bennett flashes pass-rush prowess for Patriots in preseason debut

FOXBORO -- Thursday's preseason game between the Patriots and Panthers saw Bill Belichick's top defense continue to cause headaches for opposing offenses, as it has all summer. It saw Tom Brady play more than a quarter and go 8-for-12. It saw Jarrett Stidham enter as the No. 2 quarterback and play every snap after Brady's departure. 

But who made the most of their opportunities and who didn't? Find out in our latest edition of "Popped and Dropped." 

POPPED 

MICHAEL BENNETT

The Patriots continued to pressure quarterbacks with ease this preseason, and they did so with the help of a veteran who hadn't yet played in an exhibition game this summer. Bennett looked quick off the line and generate pressure from his spot as the nose tackle. His first sack as a member of the Patriots came on Carolina's final drive of the first half on third down when he got by the center easily with a nice arm-over move. 

GUNNER OLSZEWSKI

With Braxton Berrios out, the rookie corner-turned-receiver out of Bemidji State got New England's punt-return reps and opened some eyes to his short-area quickness. His 28-yard return in the third quarter was sparked by a slipped tackle early in the return. Olszewski then reversed field to find open space. He finished the return off by lowering his shoulder on punter Michael Palardy. His first four returns went for a total of 63 yards. Doesn't feel like Olszewski is in line for a 53-man roster spot, but if the Patriots are desperate to get Julian Edelman away from punt-return responsibilities . . . maybe Olszewski is their guy? Maybe? Olszewski did appear to suffer a head injury after a fourth-quarter catch and was forced to leave the game. Jakobi Meyers took was the next returner up after Olszewski's departure.

RYAN IZZO

The second-year tight end was on the receiving end of what was probably Tom Brady's most impressive completion to a tight end this summer. Running up the seam with linebacker Jermaine Carter in coverage, Brady threw a dart just outside Carter's frame. Izzo located it and snatched the rope of a throw before hitting the turf. Izzo had a questionable holding penalty earlier in the game, but he saw plenty of first-team work with Matt LaCosse out and could have put himself in better position to make the roster with one of the better offensive plays of the night for the Patriots. 

DROPPED

JAKOBI MEYERS

The rookie wideout looked better once he was on the field with Jarrett Stidham, but when he saw reps with Tom Brady he didn't finish running a route deep down the field that helped ensure an incompletion. He also dropped a pass that was thrown slightly behind him but should've been caught. Later he was called for a holding penalty that negated a long run by Sony Michel. As someone vying for a role in a receiver room loaded with question marks, he didn't exactly cement himself as one of Brady's best available targets. 

PATRIOTS SECOND OFFENSIVE LINE

Hjalte Froholdt was called for a penalty that helped squash any momentum the Patriots had generated with a couple of long completions by Jarrett Stidham. James Ferentz got Stidham sacked on a snap earlier in the first half. Dan Skipper was called for being illegally downfield on a pass attempt. That second offensive line unit also failed to create enough room for Nick Brossette to pick up a fourth-and-short conversion. The starting group was better, but they were docked for a personal foul penalty when Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason were flagged for a chop block that killed a drive. 

FIELD GOAL OPERATION

This might need some time to iron out. Stephen Gostkowski has had Ryan Allen holding for his kicks since 2013. On his first field goal attempt since Allen was released, a 43-yarder, he hooked it wide left. A closer look at the hold, though, showed that rookie punter Jake Bailey had the laces facing Gostkowski on the kick. Not ideal. Special teams coach Joe Judge was seen chatting with Bailey after the fact. That's something they'll have to get straightened out before Week 1. They did nail a kick later in the game, but it was from just 23 yards away.

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Patriots vs. Panthers: Tom Brady stats, highlights from preseason debut

Patriots vs. Panthers: Tom Brady stats, highlights from preseason debut

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady got his first game action of the preseason Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, and the results were pretty mixed against the Carolina Panthers defense.

It was a sloppy start for the Patriots offense as a whole with three penalties during the first two drives. 

Rookie wide receiver Jakobi Meyers had a particularly bad opening two series with a drop, a penalty and a weird deep route where he stopped running. Brady's first four completions all went to wideout Phillip Dorsett for a total of 35 yards.

The Patriots found the end zone on their third drive for the game's first touchdown. Patriots running back James Develin ended the 15-play, 85-yard march with a one-yard TD run. Brady even converted a third-down with a 3-yard scramble earlier in the drive. The 42-year-old quarterback's night was over after that series. Rookie Jarrett Stidham was next up at quarterback.

Most starters typically don't play in the fourth and final preseason game, so we probably won't see Brady in action again until Week 1 of the regular season when the Patriots host the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 8.

Here's a recap of Brady's performance against the Panthers.

STATS
75 (8-for-12) completion percentage
75 yards
0/0 TD/INT
0 sacks
3 rush yards

HIGHLIGHTS
There weren't a lot of notable highlights from Brady, but here's his longest completion of the night.

Brady's final completion went to tight end Ryan Izzo.


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