DeVontae Booker

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.

Patriots bring in Utah running back Devontae Booker for a visit

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Patriots bring in Utah running back Devontae Booker for a visit

Utah running back Devontae Booker, a 5-11, 219-pounder who can contribute on the ground and in the passing game, is visiting with the Patriots on Wednesday.

The visit, reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media doesn’t necessarily indicate the Patriots are more enamored with Booker than any other running back in the class. It’s more likely the team brought him to town to check his health. He had November knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and didn’t take part in the Senior Bowl of NFL Combine.

The upside to Booker’s abilities is that he’s a smooth, cut-on-a-thread runner that shows great patience and understands how to run behind zone-blocking. He’s also got terrific hands and has both the power and suddenness to get extra yards with strength or elusiveness.

He does not have breakaway speed, according to Pro Football Focus and other draft analysis sites. He also hasn’t done much pass-blocking. Also, as you’ll see in these highlights, his propensity for letting the ball get away from his body as opposed to carrying it high and tight is going to have to be coached out of him. But he’s a fun runner.

Biggest takeaway on Booker being in town? The Patriots are tire-kicking on all running backs and will likely be in the market for one next week.

Patriots draft positional preview: Running back

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Patriots draft positional preview: Running back

A Patriot-centric look at the best available players at each position and which direction the Pats may go when they're finally on the clock. 

Check it out here.