PATS REPORTER

Perry: Don't be surprised if J.J. Taylor 'pops' in training camp

PATS REPORTER

Crowded as the Patriots backfield may be, there's an opportunity available to J.J. Taylor this season.

The second-year back out of Arizona has the quickness and versatile skill set to fill a multi-faceted role once occupied by some of the most dynamic backs the Patriots have employed in recent seasons.

That may sound like an overstatement, but his position coach has said as much.

"Little Dion, that’s what he is," Ivan Fears said, comparing Taylor to Dion Lewis during Taylor's rookie training camp last summer. "Little Dion. Exciting, fun ...

"Have you seen him out there? Same quickness. Same suddenness. He’s a hell of a pass-catcher. Guy’s got great vision. There’s a [expletive] load of stuff that’s good about him."

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Before we get into the details of how Taylor stacks up against Patriots backs of the past, just look at how the position has been manned in Foxboro under Bill Belichick. The Patriots have long had a running backs room filled with well-defined roles. Go back through the last decade and you'll often see an early-down "big back," a third-down "sub" option and a third more versatile piece who can do a little bit of everything.

For example, in 2011, the Patriots had an early-down "big" back (Stevan Ridley), a "sub" back (Shane Vereen), as well as a do-it-all threat (Danny Woodhead).

There was a brief stretch in 2013 and 2014 where the versatile third runner wasn't really part of the equation in New England, but in 2015 came Dion Lewis, who complemented big back LeGarrette Blount and sub back James White. More recently, Sony Michel and Damien Harris have served in the big back role, with White as the sub option and Rex Burkhead as the multi-faceted runner.

 

With Burkhead gone, there's an opening.

It's still unclear as to how the position will shake out following training camp this year. There are arguments to keep Michel, Harris, White, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and special-teams staple Brandon Bolden on the roster.

Stevenson remains an unknown at the NFL level but is a fascinating talent to keep an eye on this summer when it comes to the overall depth chart at the position. Though very different in terms of his body type when compared to Taylor (or Woodhead, or Lewis), Stevenson has been billed as a player who can catch it and contribute on special teams. He'd be a dual-threat runner who leans heavily toward the big back end of the spectrum (6-feet, 230 pounds) as opposed to Woodhead and Lewis, who looked more like third-down backs had they been pigeonholed.

But, based on what little we've seen of Stevenson, there's no obvious choice to fill that gig once held by Woodhead, Lewis and Burkhead as a capable receiver and a between-the-tackles runner. Perhaps because of the position's depth of talent, Belichick would be just fine eschewing that role altogether when determining who will make his Week 1 roster.

But if the Patriots want someone who can provide a change-of-pace as an early-down runner and a dependable set of hands as a receiver, Taylor could be the choice.

A few weeks of his rookie training camp last summer was all that Fears needed to dub Taylor "Little Dion."

Lewis was one of the great reclamation projects of the Belichick era in New England. After bouncing around the league -- Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis -- and coming back from injury, Lewis signed with the Patriots in 2015. He was electric.

Using tremendous leg strength and eye-opening quickness, Lewis left tacklers grasping at air regularly. Before tearing his ACL in the middle of the 2015 season, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and caught 36 passes for 388 yards (10.8 yards per reception).

Part of what made Lewis so hard to track down was that, at times, it seemed as though he got lost behind the line of scrimmage. Taylor, meanwhile, is listed at 5-foot-6, 185 pounds -- two inches smaller than Lewis.

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Undrafted last year, Taylor did a little bit of everything for Arizona, including chipping in as a returner. If that versatile back role will be his in New England, contributing in the kicking game will likely be a part of his job as well. It was for Woodhead, Lewis and Burkhead before him.

 

With a more typical NFL offseason to show off what he can do, Taylor could carve out a role in a crowded depth chart this summer, Fears noted last month.

"Last year, JJ didn't have any preseason games, which really hurt him," Fears said at the time. "Really hurt him. He's a player more than he is a practice guy, if you understand what I'm saying. His skills really show up more in game action. He needed that and he didn't have a chance to do it to show us what he was all about."

Fears explained earlier this offseason that without Burkhead, who signed in 2017 and finished last year on injured reserve, the Patriots will miss having his route-running ability.

"Rex was a lot more nifty, a little smaller," Fears said. "Yeah, we don't have a lot of those guys hanging around."

That could be where Taylor slides in, helping provide a bit of pass-catching depth behind White, who is going into his eighth season.

"He's not going to get bigger," Fears said of Taylor during OTAs. "We know that. He's not going to get taller. It's just his style of play that's gotta be the thing that changes. He's going to be an excellent make-you-miss type of back. Excellent in the open field. He's got great vision. His run instincts are outstanding. No doubt about it.

"His hands are good. He can catch the ball. He can run the routes. He's got all that stuff. When it's all said and done, he's gotta get out and do it. He's gotta do it in practice. He's gotta do it in preseason games. He's gotta earn the spot. He's gotta show us he can play. No matter what his size is, he's gonna have to show us that he can play. And that he can handle all the roles involved in that.

"From running routes, to running the football, blocking, the whole deal. All that's going to have to be something he shows us. I think he's on track. He's having a hell of a spring. He's having a hell of a spring."

How Taylor performs with pads on later this month at training camp and into August will provide a far better gauge on his chances of making an impact, but he flashed some ability in limited action last season.

Seeing 50 offensive snaps in six games, Taylor carried 23 times for 110 yards (4.8 per carry), averaging a robust 2.91 yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus. Of those 23, 11 were taken between the tackles, per PFF. Taylor caught one of two passes sent his way (he dropped the other) for four yards.

 

Predicting Taylor to have a breakout season the way Lewis did in 2015 is difficult. If folks knew Lewis was going to have the season he did in 2015 before his injury, he wouldn't have been available to Belichick as a street free agent. Plus, the running back room is packed at One Patriot Place ahead of this upcoming season.

Still, the Patriots like to hold onto players who fit Belichick's "the more you can do ..." credo, particularly at running back. If Taylor's elusiveness shows up during the preseason, while everyone is focused on the bigger bodies at his position group, he may clear a path to a real role in the offense in New England.

Fears is certainly confident Taylor has the ability to win a job. Now it's just a matter of proving him right.