We'll say one thing about the Patriots' disappointing 2022 offense: At least they could run it. Or had players with the ability to run it.
The team’s offensive MVP was undoubtedly second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson, who was responsible for 27 percent of the Patriots' yards from scrimmage and handled the ball 279 times.
But having good running backs is different than having a good running game. The Patriots went through a six-game stretch in the middle of the season where they averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry in every game. They didn’t crack 100 rushing yards as a team in nine games. And they didn’t block it up too well for Stevenson, who made 68.7 percent of his 1,040 yards after contact and averaged 3.4 yards after contact.
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What gummed up the works and muddied the waters was the offseason pivot to relying on more of a wide-zone attack and employing outside stretch runs. It became readily apparent in training camp that it wasn’t working. But the Patriots had already changed personnel, jettisoning fullback Jakob Johnson, so they plowed along. By the end of the year, they had flipped back to being a more straight-ahead, gap-running team.
What’s on hand and what do they need to get better on the ground?
Stevenson tied for 10th in the NFL in total touches with 279. He was 12th in rushing yards, tied for fourth in YPC (5.0, tied with Nick Chubb) and fourth in running back receptions with 69 behind Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette.
Did he have a costly fumble against the Bengals and a confounding lateral against the Raiders? Yes. But Stevenson was so good and so frequently the only offensive bright spot for the Patriots in some games, that those mistakes drew sympathy more than vilification. Poor guy was trying to do too much.
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He took a beating and kept producing. An example: he was forced from the Patriots' win at Arizona with an ankle injury. The next week he went for 172 against the Raiders. In terms of toughness and physicality combined with lateral quickness and soft hands, Stevenson is the total package.
Damien Harris had an injury-marred 2022. He played in 11 games but was still a bull, averaging 4.4 yards on 106 carries. The returns from the two running backs drafted in 2022 were also positive. Pierre Strong carried 10 times for 100 yards and caught seven for 42. In limited duty, Kevin Harris showed good power and explosion as well.
Finally, Marcus Jones -- drafted as a cornerback/kick returner -- made himself useful as the pace back (or sub back, third-down back, speed back or whatever you want to call it), catching four passes for 78 yards and a 48-yard touchdown.
The disappointment would be the number of runs for zero or negative yards. Again, that’s more on the offensive line and the ineptitude of the Patriots' passing game, which allowed teams to load up the box. But that was a distressing weekly reality.
Also, the time invested installing a new scheme which didn’t take. And an over-reliance on Stevenson as both the bell-cow, between-the-tackles back and the pass-catching back. Ideally, the team would have two guys with varied skills to keep the punishing workload down. Or even three, which the team had with the Sony Michel-Rex Burkhead-James White troika, for example.
But once Ty Montgomery got hurt early in the year, the Patriots were without a complementary back, since second-year back J.J. Taylor has been unable to emerge. Taylor, who had scintillating moments in camp and preseason games, carried 10 times for 9 yards against the Colts in his only action of the season. The 5-foot-6, 185-pounder has speed, power, hands and high-end elusiveness but hasn’t carved a role yet.
Damien Harris’ rookie deal is up. He will be a free agent. The Patriots seemingly prepped for his departure by drafting Strong and Kevin Harris in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively. Both of those players are signed for short money through 2025.
Taylor, undrafted in 2021, is entering the last year of his deal. The Patriots will have another year with Montgomery, who will be 30 this season.
Finally, there’s Stevenson. He made $825K this year. His 2023 salary is $940K. He is quite obviously in line for a pay bump through the end of his deal next year. An extension should be a priority. Shaping it could be difficult.
Take a look at the top running back deals in the league. Stevenson is at least a $10M-per-year player. The idea of spending $10M per year on a running back would likely make Bill Belichick’s blood run cold. Hell, he could get two middling defensive tackles for that!!
That deal -- like the one for the Patriots' most valuable receiver in 2022, Jakobi Meyers -- will be interesting to watch.
Offseason priority (Scale 1-5)
It’s a 2.
Get Stevenson an extension if possible. Then figure out if Montgomery is your third-down back or whether you want to give Taylor another shot or expand Marcus Jones’ role. But be decisive and act early, because the lack of an out-of-the-backfield waterbug is a missing element in this offense.