Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at the guys who will (or won't) be running the football for the Patriots in 2018.
OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES
HOW THEY PERFORMED
The running back position was one of the deepest and most consistent on the Patriots roster in 2017. The team's collection of backs, coached by Ivan Fears, were good enough that the player signed in the offseason to replace LeGarrette Blount ended up having a hard time finding the field. Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the stretch run of the season, while Dion Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry and helped make the Patriots more of an unpredictable offense with his ability to both run out of heavy formations and align as a receiver when called upon. Lewis caught 32 passes for 214 yards, but the diminutive back was at his best as a runner. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranked fourth in the league in average yards after contact per carry (3.2) and fifth in forcing missed tackles as a runner. He made 42 tacklers miss, just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell in a whopping 141 fewer rushing attempts. James White didn't finish the season with the same kind of flare he did in 2016, but his 2017 regular season wasn't all that far off from the year prior in terms of his production. He had 60 catches for 551 yards in 2016 and 56 for 429 in 2017. Rex Burkhead was limited by injury throughout the course of the season but provided value as a rusher, receiver and special teamer. The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in rush yards per game (118.1) and 12th in yards per attempt (4.2) and were tied as the third-best team in the league in terms of protecting the football (four rushing fumbles, two lost).
WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Lewis, Burkhead, Brandon Bolden
HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?
Right now, the position doesn't look all that different than it did in 2016, when the Patriots offense was the fourth-best team in the league in terms of yards and third-best in terms of points. They had their sub-back (White) and their hammer (Blount). If Gillislee can take on the Blount role, they'd have both roles covered once again. The Patriots, though, could use an all-purpose runner to add to the mix. After the 2016 campaign, the team wanted to become more unpredictable, and they found a better mix with a healthy Lewis and an occasionally-healthy Burkhead. Bringing one of those players back in 2018, or someone like them, would seem to be a priority this offseason.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?
The name topping everyone's list right now at this position this offseason is Bell's. One of the best dual-threat backs the league has seen in recent memory, he's going to be paid handsomely. Whether that's via the franchise tag (which he was given last season) or a long-term deal worth somewhere in the range of $11 million per year, he's not going to be on New England's radar in all likelihood. Others available? San Francisco's Carlos Hyde, Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon and Indy's Frank Gore are the best multi-purpose backs out there. Would the Patriots be willing to extend for someone like Hyde, who could argue he's worth somewhere in the range of $6 million per year, per Spotrac?
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
For the second consecutive year, it looks like the college ranks have churned out a fine running back class, with plenty of players who can do a little bit of everything. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is the cream of the crop and could be gone within the top five picks of the draft. LSU's Derrius Guice is more of a violent between-the-tackles runner and could hear his name called by the end of Day 1 or the start of Day 2. The next tier of backs could be the sweet spot for anyone looking for an every-down runner. USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Sony Michel, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and San Diego's State's Rashaad Penny may not be perfect prospects, but experts say all four have shown promise as potential three-down players.
HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
As was the case with the tackle group, Bill Belichick's best option may be to go with what he had in 2017. If Lewis isn't blown away by another team's offer in free-agency, it'd make sense to try to bring him back. Should Lewis end up capitalizing on his last season elsewhere, Burkhead should offer the Patriots good value. Durability may be a concern, but the Patriots know what Burkhead's capable of, he understands the offense, and after missing six games last season, he won't be looking to break the bank. If neither of those familiar faces is interested in a return, McKinnon, 25, is an enticing option in free agency. He may be more receiver (51 catches last season) than a runner (150 carries), but he forced 39 total missed tackles on his 201 touches and had PFF's fifth-best running back grade in 2017. The 2014 combine standout would also provide some value as a kick-returning option; that was Lewis' gig last season. As far as the draft goes, Penny would be intriguing in the middle rounds because the SDSU offense used some the pro-style concepts -- the Aztecs leaned on the I-formation, for instance -- that would be thrown his way in Foxboro.
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