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.
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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.
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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. NFL.com'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.