The Patriots were pretty well-stocked at the running back position in 2020. Sony Michel and Damien Harris were available as early-down backs. James White retained his title as one of the best sub backs in football. Rex Burkhead was there if the team needed a dual threat. And they had a developmental option in the undersized but lightning-quick JJ Taylor.
They're still relatively deep. Both Michel and Harris are under contract. Taylor is headed into a pivotal Year 2. But the two most experienced players in the Patriots running back room, White and Burkhead, are scheduled to hit free agency.
What does that mean for Bill Belichick? Time to invest in a back with some hands? Someone who might not be a hammer between the tackles but can act as a receiver out of the backfield and pass protect?
White may find interest in places like Tampa Bay and Miami, closer to home for him, where those teams are familiar with his skill set. If the Patriots can't retain him, adding a back with some passing-game chops will be key. Even with Taylor -- who impressed behind the scenes as a rookie -- in the fold.
Aaron Jones, 27: Since the start of the 2019 season, according to Pro Football Focus, only three backs had a better receiving grade than Jones did for the Packers: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Austin Ekeler. Impressive company.
But because he may be the best receiver in this year's free-agent class, he'll be costly. Could he land a deal that would pay him in a range similar to Joe Mixon, who's making $12 million per year?
Jamaal Williams, 26: This may be the better fit for Belichick's purposes. Younger. Should be cheaper given that he was the No. 2 to Jones throughout their time in Green Bay. And because he's only seen 150 carries once in his career (2017, 153), he should still have plenty of burst.
He's caught at least 25 passes each of the last four years, and he doesn't have a fumble in 652 career touches.
Mike Davis, 28: As fantasy players can attest, when given an opportunity, Davis put up numbers in 2020. He only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, but he had a career-high in yards (642), receptions (59) and receiving yards (373). PFF credited him with 65 total missed tackles forced.
If a pass-catching specialist is what the Patriots are looking for, they could do worse. Especially since he won't break the bank given his career rep as a No. 2.
Le'Veon Bell, 29: It wasn't all that long ago we made the case for the Patriots signing Le'Veon Bell. At that point, with Belichick's club needing all the offensive help it could get, what was the harm? But he was a non-factor in Kansas City, rushing for 4.0 yards per carry on 63 attempts and catching about a pass per game.
He still may have some juice left in the tank, but on anything more than a short-term prove-it deal, it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest here. Granted, something inexpensive and low on years committed may be exactly what the Patriots are looking for.
Kenyan Drake, 27: An interesting name here because Drake can serve as both a receiver and runner. If the Burkhead role is open -- Burkhead is working his way back from a season-ending knee injury -- Drake would be logical.
The question would just be at what price? Drake caught 25 of 31 passes last season and ran for a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry on 239 attempts. Impressively, he rated second in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency metric, allowing just one pressure and no sacks on 54 pass-blocking snaps. That'll play in New England.
James Connor, 26: Though Conner has a reputation as a brutish between-the-tackles runner, the 230-pounder has enough of a well-rounded game. He caught 35 passes last season, ran for 4.3 yards per carry, and he ranked eighth in pass-blocking efficiency, per PFF.
Chris Carson, 27: One more dual threat for the Patriots to look into. They'll appreciate his downhill running style -- no hesitating at the line of scrimmage here -- and the fact that he can create yards on his own.
According to PFF, he has gained at least three yards per carry after contact every year since he came into the league as a seventh-round pick. He caught 37 passes in each of the last two years, but he might not be the most polished pass-protector on this list. He had just 25 pass-blocking snaps last season and in 2019 he had 69 but ranked 54th among backs in terms of pass-blocking efficiency.
Still, he looks like a better fit than other free agents like Marlon Mack, Tevin Coleman and Carlos Hyde.