Brandon Bolden

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots finished the regular season ranked 25th in rushing (3.8 yards per carry), but don't put that all on the humans carrying the football.

As we detailed late last week, the run-blocking work of the offensive line left plenty to be desired in 2019, making some of the overall rushing numbers look paltry in comparison to the tail end of the 2018 season when the Patriots embraced more of a smash-mouth identity. 

Still, the numbers were eye-opening. Rex Burkhead was the only regularly-used Patriots running back who cracked 4.0 yards per carry (4.6), while Sony Michel (3.7) showed a lack of North-South aggression at times that resulted in more than his fair share of stuffed runs.

On a positive note for this group, two of the team's best receivers — Burkhead and James White — came out of the running back room, and they were relatively healthy for the majority of the year.

What's in store for this unit in 2020? More of the same since every back from the 2019 roster is scheduled to be back next season? Will we see some fresh faces in new roles? Let's do some digging.

Breaking down the current roster

Sony Michel: Michel wasn't bad in first-and-10 situations. He had a 49 percent success rate (7th among backs with at least 100 such carries in 2019) and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which tied him with Todd Gurley and Dalvin Cook. Even in short-yardage spots, his numbers were fine. He converted on third-and-one or third-and-two at a 73 percent clip, which was 10th in football. He was hit often enough at the line of scrimmage that even running backs coach Ivan Fears told reporters during the season that his second-year back had to get downhill quicker, and Michel was too often a detriment in the passing game. But after getting through the season healthy, he's likely to be the team's top between-the-tackles option again in the third year of his rookie deal.

James White: Still one of the best receiving backs in the league — and among the most productive receiving backs of the last decade, when you break down the numbers — White was third in the NFL among backs in receiving yardage (646 yards), sixth in receptions (72) and tied for second in receiving touchdowns (5). He had half the number of drops (2) that Michel did ... and on 71 fewer targets (90). He's going into a contract year in 2020.

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Rex Burkhead: The issue with Burkhead has long been injuries, and he missed three more games in 2019 due to injury. But keeping him on a pitch count — he hit 20 snaps only five times in 14 games — helped make him the team's most productive back on a per-play basis. He ranked fifth in the league among backs with at least 250 snaps with a 10.3 yards-per-reception figure. He ranked 12th in football in terms of yards per rushing attempt (4.6), tied with Saquon Barkley. Like White, he's going into the final year of his deal in New England.

Damien Harris: The 2019 third-rounder out of Alabama took a "redshirt" year as a rookie. He saw just four snaps all season, all of them in a Week 7 blowout of the Jets. Fears noted throughout the season that he liked the progress Harris was making, but there simply wasn't a game-day roster spot for him most weeks because most others at the position were healthy. "You can't play them all," Fears said in October. Should Michel miss any time moving forward, Harris would likely be the "next man up." Perhaps, if the team thinks Harris provides more juice as an early-down runner, he could challenge Michel for work in that role. 

Brandon Bolden: The special-teams ace played primarily in the kicking game in 2019, but he did take 15 carries for 68 yards (a 4.5 yards-per-carry average). His speed, even in his eighth season, was good enough to serve as a consistent threat on end-around runs. He's headed into the last year of his contract in 2020.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Kenyan Drake: With every Patriots back scheduled to return in 2020, this seems like a low-priority position group to address via free agency. But Drake would be an all-purpose back who might have Bill Belichick licking his chops. The Patriots saw him twice a year for three years as a member of the Dolphins. Last season, he went from being a ho-hum performer behind a bad offensive line in Miami to one of the most explosive backs in the league in a new scheme in Arizona. He might cost more than $5 million per year as a free agent, though, and so he may be too pricey for a team like the Patriots, who aren't exactly flush with cap space.

Devontae Booker: Booker would certainly be a more cost-effective option if the Patriots were looking for a player with some all-purpose potential. That's how he was billed coming out of Utah in 2016 — the Patriots brought him in for a visit before the draft — but that potential was never realized in Denver where he became a pure special-teamer, buried behind running back Phillip Lindsay, in his fourth year. Any chance he's a buy-low option who could flourish with a little more opportunity?

Jordan Howard: If it's a big back the Patriots are after — and that seems unlikely with Michel and Harris sitting there on the roster — then Howard is among the biggest names available who'd make some sense for the Patriots. Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon are going to be out of the team's price range, in all likelihood, but Howard could potentially help solve the team's short-yardage issues at a fraction of the cost. Their problems down by the goal line helped get them beat by the Titans in the Wild Card Round. 

Carlos Hyde: With 1,000 yards in 2019 — the first such season of his career — Hyde might be looking to go somewhere where he's considered the top guy at the position. That likely won't be in New England. The 230-pounder is about to be in his 30-year-old season.

Chris Thompson: With both James White and Rex Burkhead looking at the final years of their respective contracts, the Patriots might be after a receiving back this offseason. Thompson has quietly produced as an effective pass-catcher when healthy; he's two years removed from a 500-yard receiving season when in 2017 he averaged 13.1 yards per catch. The seven-year vet has some return experience, and after several seasons marred by injury for a moribund franchise in Washington, he may be relatively inexpensive on the open market.

Ty Montgomery: A different route to take for Belichick if it's a pass-catcher he's after. Montgomery would represent an interesting shift at the position. Instead of having a running back serve as a quality receiver — like Kevin Faulk or James White — why not just get a receiver to play running back? That's Montgomery, who came into the league as a wideout with the Packers but has changed positions and provided some passing-game punch in stops with the Ravens and Jets. He had only 45 touches last year in New York, averaging 4.28 yards per, so the idea of a receiver playing running back in today's NFL might actually be more enticing than Montgomery's talent on its own. He's an experienced kick-returner but has not returned a punt in his career.

Report: Rex Burkhead (foot) expected to be active for Patriots vs. Browns

Report: Rex Burkhead (foot) expected to be active for Patriots vs. Browns

The New England Patriots are getting a reinforcement ahead of their Week 8 matchup with the Cleveland Browns.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, running back Rex Burkhead, who is dealing with a foot injury, is expected to play on Sunday.

As Schefter mentioned, Burkhead hasn't played in any of the latest three games for the Patriots. That said, he only saw very limited action against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4 as he was dealing with the foot injury at that time as well.

So far this season, Burkhead has arguably been the Patriots' best all-around back. He has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per reception while totaling 229 yards from scrimmage. He has also converted his only goal-line carry for a touchdown.

Burkhead's presence should eat into the snap count of both Sony Michel and James White while Brandon Bolden could be relegated solely to special teams detail with Burkhead back. In what could be a rain-soaked game, having Burkhead back could be just the spark the team's struggling run game needs.

With Burkhead returning, rookie third-round running back Damien Harris may find himself on the inactives list once again. Harris hasn't had many opportunities to prove himself as a rookie, but he is demonstrating patience as he looks to make it at the NFL level.

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Brandon Bolden 'trying to take advantage' of every opportunity with Patriots

Brandon Bolden 'trying to take advantage' of every opportunity with Patriots

After a year away from the New England Patriots, Brandon Bolden returned to the team. And so far this season, Bolden has done a little bit of everything for them.

Bolden's role in the offense has been steadily growing. He has scored in three consecutive games and since Week 3, he is averaging just over 12 snaps per game on offense. But Bolden isn't concerned about his offensive role. He's just trying to take advantage of the opportunity to be on the field.

"I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get," Bolden said to reporters after the Patriots' win over the New York Giants. "The offense trusts me enough to throw me in there, so I’m just trying to do my job the best I can."

Bolden has logged 117 scrimmage yards so far this season, putting him on pace for the third-highest yardage total of his career. And that's despite the fact that he didn't play at all in the team's Week 2 game against the Miami Dolphins.

It's clear that Bill Belichick is starting to trust Bolden more on offense, but he also has made some plays on special teams. Bolden blocked a punt against the Giants in Week 6 and made it clear that he takes pride in his jack-of-all-trades role for the squad.

"I’m just out there doing what they call on me to do," Bolden said. "If it’s out there to rush the punt, I’m going to rush it. If it’s out there to catch a pass, I’m going to do the best I can to catch it. If it’s out there to run the ball, I’m going to put my head down and try to get some yards."

We'll see what the Patriots have in store for Bolden moving forward. But with Sony Michel's red-zone struggles becoming more prevalent, perhaps he will earn a role as a goal-line runner, though the potential return of Rex Burkhead could complicate that.

The only thing we know for certain is this; It doesn't seem likely that Tom Brady will continue to be the primary battering ram on the goal-line even if he is "the GOAT of QB sneaks."

We'll soon see if Bolden can continue to lock down a bigger role on offense and produce in the red-zone. But either way, he'll be ready for whatever is thrown his way.

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