James White

Prototypical Patriots: They can always use another good running back

Prototypical Patriots: They can always use another good running back

The Patriots aren't exactly in dire need of running back help. They have Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill and Brandon Bolden all under contract. Yes, they lost Dion Lewis to the Titans in free agency, but if Burkhead stays healthy, he could potentially offer some of what Lewis did as a dual-threat runner and receiver.

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Still, this draft class is so loaded with talent at running back that the Patriots may have the opportunity to select a player in the middle rounds who in other years would've gone earlier. There's value there. 

Penn State star Saquon Barkley will go somewhere in the top seven, it seems, and probably earlier. He's not going to be in New England's range, in all likelihood. But late in the second round? Even into the third and fourth? There are players who have the size, athleticism and traits the Patriots often covet - both in "sub" and "big" backs. 

Let's take a look... 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE
RONALD JONES, USC, 5-11, 205 POUNDS

Jones could be the best dual-threat available to the Patriots. He wasn't used heavily in the passing game at USC, but he has the ability to catch it and he understands how to protect. And when asked to run between the tackles, he's a no-nonsense back who protects the football (two fumbles in 591 carries) and is a threat to create a big play at any moment. A hamstring issue prevented him from testing fully during the pre-draft process, but he still recorded a solid 36 1/2-inch vertical at the combine.

SONY MICHEL, GEORGIA, 5-11, 214 

Another potentially-versatile option, Michel isn't the water-bug type. He hits holes hard and tries to outrun anyone unlucky enough to be chasing him. Like Jones, he has solid hands and can be relied upon in protection. Athletically, Michel isn't a freak (4.54-second 40, 4.21-second shuttle), but he was a two-year captain at a program that Bill Belichick respects. 

DERRIUS GUICE, LSU, 5-10, 224 

Guice doesn't have the explosiveness of others the Patriots have selected (31 1/2-inch vertical), but his speed is good (4.49 seconds), and his running style screams "Patriots big back." He could be a first-round choice, and the Patriots reportedly hosted him on a pre-draft top-30 visit. 

RASHAAD PENNY, SAN DIEGO STATE, 5-11, 220

Elusive and athletic enough by Patriots standards (4.46-second 40, 32.5-inch vertical, 10-foot broad), Penny is one of the draft's more intriguing talents at the position. He's not ready to step in as a pass-protector, but he certainly knows what he's doing when handed the rock. He led all Division 1 runners last year with 2,248 yards on 289 carries. He was a first-team All-American and he placed fifth in the Heisman voting. 

ROYCE FREEMAN, OREGON, 5-11, 229

Another back with good size and impressive enough testing numbers, Freeman could slide in what is thought to be a very deep class of runners. He jumped 34 inches in the vertical and hit 118 inches in the broad jump, both solid numbers for a player his size. His three-cone (6.9 seconds) was also satisfactory based on New England's history drafting at the position. If he's deemed a reliable receiver -- it looks like his hands are relatively dependable -- he could be an interesting all-purpose option in the middle rounds. 

KERRYON JOHNSON, AUBURN, 5-11, 213

Did we mention this is a deep class? Johnson's a perfect example of just how deep it is. He's generated very little media buzz, but he's one of the most gifted runners in the class. And he didn't exactly come from out of nowhere. He was a second-team AP All-American last season for his ability to do it all (1,391 yards on 285 carries, 24 catches for 194 yards). Johnson's explosiveness would certainly play in New England. He had a 40-inch vertical, a 126-inch broad to go along with a more pedestrian 7.07-second three-cone at this year's combine.  

NICK CHUBB, GEORGIA, 5-11, 227 

Chubb isn't a burner (4.52-second 40), but the Patriots haven't been married to 40 times when they've taken backs in the past. He's a very good athlete, even after his devastating leg injury from 2015, and could serve as a first and second-down option who should be available late in the second round if the Patriots want him. 

NYHEIM HINES, NC STATE, 5-8, 198


What's working in Hines' favor when it comes to his fit in New England? He comes from an offense the Patriots respect, which produced both Joe Thuney and Jacoby Brissett. Hines also happens to be one of the fastest players in the class (4.38-second 40). His three-cone might not be ideal for New England (7.18 seconds), but his experience catching the football should earn him a good long look from Belichick and the Patriots front office. 

KALEN BALLAGE, ARIZONA STATE, 6-1, 228


He'd qualify as a big back but he tested as a sub option, and his tape shows a player who has all kinds of versatility. He's strong enough to run between the tackles, he can catch, he can align as a receiver, and he has experience returning kicks. Sound like a Patriot? He's a little inconsistent, and he may be slow to the hole at times, which could make him a late Day 2 or Day 3 option. 

AKRUM WADLEY, IOWA, 5-10, 194 


Another college coaching connection here. Wadley played behind a well-coached offensive line under head coach Kirk Ferentz, and he should be able to adapt to NFL life relatively quickly when it comes to understanding scheme. He is on the edge of acceptable athleticism compared to other backs drafted to New England when it comes to his testing (4.54-second 40, 32-inch vertical). But he seems more athletic than that on tape, showing an ability to create yards on his own with his shake. Wadley is light and so there are questions about how he'll hold up at the next level, but he could be a sub option since he has experience lining up in the slot as a receiver. He's also returned kicks. 

CHASE EDMONDS, FORDHAM, 5-9, 205


Edmonds certainly falls into the category of sub runner based on his size. And while the level of competition he faced at the college level wasn't top-tier, his athleticism seems to be satisfactory based on others the Patriots have drafted at the position. His 40 isn't eye-popping, but looks good enough (4.55 seconds). His vertical (34 inches), broad jump (122 inches), three-cone (6.79 seconds) and short shuttle (4.07 seconds) were all very impressive. In the late rounds, he may be worth a pick. 

BO SCARBROUGH, ALABAMA, 6-1, 228 

Scarbrough became an internet sensation because of his ridiculous build coming out of high school. He never became a star at 'Bama, but he shouldn't be discounted because the buzz on him early in his career didn't match his production. Scarbrough's size and athleticism (4.52-second 40, 40-inch vertical, 129-inch broad) is rare. Combine that with the coaching he received in college, and perhaps the Patriots see a big back who would be good value in the middle rounds. 

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING
JUSTIN JACKSON, NORTHWESTERN, 6-0, 193


Jackson's frame may be a little more slight than the Patriots would prefer, and he's not exactly a polished receiver, but he's an impressive athlete (38 1/2-inch vertical, 122-inch broad, 6.81-second three-cone, 4.07-second short shuttle). His long speed isn't amazing (4.52-second 40), but his other traits should get him drafted late. 

MARK WALTON, MIAMI, 5-10, 202

We've written about Walton already in the pre-draft process. There are many reasons to believe he'd be a Patriots fit. But when he tested at the combine, he didn't exactly drop any jaws. His 4.6-second 40 and 31 1/2-inch vert are a little below what the Patriots have typically sought. 

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If Patriots lose dual-threat backs, Miami's Walton an interesting fit

If Patriots lose dual-threat backs, Miami's Walton an interesting fit

The Patriots will have a choice in front of them soon: Hold onto one of their most dynamic offensive playmakers by paying market price, or move on and take a less expensive shot on someone in free agency or the draft. 

The player in question is Dion Lewis. The position Lewis plays helps complicate the discussion.

Shelling out big money for running backs simply hasn't been a part of Bill Belichick's team-building philosophy in recent years, and if that trend continues, there's a chance Lewis is moving on. Then what? 

Rex Burkhead is a free agent as well. He should command less than Lewis after an injury-riddled 2017, but there's no guarantee he'll be back. Once the new league year begins, options on the open market could include Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco's Carlos Hyde and Miami's Damien Williams. 

If the Patriots were interested in the free-agent market at the position, there will be limits on the lengths they'd be willing to go. James White received a three-year $12 million deal last offseason. Burkhead received a one-year $3.15 million deal. Mike Gillislee picked up a two-year, $6.4 million deal as a restricted free agent.

Given the variance in production the Patriots saw from those players, one would understand if they were wary dishing out significant cash for another player at that spot -- particularly with other spots on the roster that need addressing. 

The most cost-effective way to go about re-stocking the position would likely be through the draft. And after a few days in Indianapolis for this year's NFL Scouting Combine, it's clear that this is a highly-regarded class of running backs.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley is inarguably the best player in the group, but the top layer of backs in this year's crop is deep. There are as many as six runners who could go in the first two rounds come May. 

That still may be too rich for New England's blood. In the last 11 Patriots drafts, they've only taken one back in the first two rounds. Shane Vereen was a second-rounder back in 2011. The Patriots did conduct a formal interview with Georgia's Sony Michele, who's expected to be among the first three or four backs taken, though, so who knows. 

If you take a look at the next tier of runners, one name that has stood out as a potential Patriots fit early in the process is Miami's Mark Walton. He measured in at 5-foot-10, 202 pounds in Indy, and his running style has been painted as Patriots-esque. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Walton to James White. The Pro Football Focus guys have hit him with a Lewis comp

Walton projects as a dual-threat player. He saw 60 targets in his first two seasons, per PFF, and he's a threat to create a big play any time he touches the ball with a few 80-plus yard runs to his name. An ankle injury limited to just four games last season, but he says he's healthy now. He ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the combine. 

If a team is looking for a back who can handle adversity, it'd be hard to find anyone who's been through what Walton has. His mother, Kimberly Rogers, died a little over a year ago after suffering a stroke. About a month before that, his daughter Ma'Lani was born prematurely. Walton's father was murdered when he was young. His 15-year-old sister will travel with him to whichever city he calls home next. 

Walton said he met with Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears in Indy. 

"I think the type of guy I am, I think the energy I bring in the room and my story, it speaks for itself," Walton said last week. "The type of person that I am, my background, where I came from, I overcame a lot of things and still here today, speaking among you guys. I didn't give up. That's a huge notice to those team that I could have given up. Once my dad passed, my mom passed, I could have thrown everything away. But I was able to stick it out."

Walton will get a shot to stick it out somewhere in the league. Whether or not his shot -- or that of any other rookie back -- comes from the Patriots could hinge on the lengths Belichick is willing to go to retain a known commodity at that position.

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What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

MINNEAPOLIS -- Through three episodes of the Facebook project "Tom vs. Time" that tracks Tom Brady's work and life off the field, one of the more fascinating scenes involves Brady picking through thick binders filled with notes and plans from individual seasons. Inside the 2016 binder, he pulled a sheet of paper from the point last season when the Patriots were preparing to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick, and Cris Collinsworth break down match-ups to look for on Sunday

"This is a lot of stuff that [Bill] Belichick talks about in team meetings that I write down," Brady told the camera. "These are kind of his themes. I'll read you some of them: 'Prepare and play well. The Super Bowl environment is all about hype and ridiculous bull**** that goes on.' "

He would know. He's been through enough of these.

The media crush is obviously different during Super Bowl week. Players are aware of it. The vast majority know how to handle it. Still, Patriots were asked on Tuesday how they deal with the chaotic media availability sessions and all the attention.

MORE OF WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Eagles weigh in: Belichick-or-Brady?

"You just kind of tune it out," James White said. "You come in here to win a football game. There's all this hype around this game. Biggest game of the year and whatnot. But we can't overhype it. It's still football at the end of the day. You want to go out and put your best foot forward, have fun, and just do what you've been doing all year long."

Many Patriots continue to live by the credo "ignore the noise," and Nate Solder, who is headed to his fourth Super Bowl, counts himself among those.

"That was established by the coaches and things, but that's helped me certainly because all this other stuff, it's just white noise," Solder said. "It's just gonna take away from the true reason that we're here, and that's to win a game."

MORE PATRIOTS: Disobeying the sitter to watch Brady

"We deal with media all week during the regular week," added David Andrews. "It's not like something we deal with once a year at this time of year. But everything now is on a bigger scale. The game is obviously on a bigger scale. There's more production, things like that. We just kind of handle that. Move forward. It's gonna be good to get back here, rolling, and preparing for Philly."

The Patriots will have their first practice of the week on Wednesday. They'll do their best to fall into their routine, as they have for the first few days of their stay here, despite living in a hotel attached to a gargantuan mall.

"You can still stick to your routine," White said. "I think our staff does a great job of trying to get everything we have at our facility at the hotel so you can do the same exact things you've done before."

Here are some of the other things the Patriots were saying on Tuesday . . .

Brady on "centering himself" and meditation: "It can be challenging. Obviously my mind races a lot. There are a lot of things that I'm thinking about. For me, I've learned the car ride home is a great
time, 30 minutes of time, where I can listen to music and find a good space for me to be in for the day. Whether that's driving into work in the morning, or I can think about things I need to do, I want to do. And leaving practice, after you've expended a lot of energy, to find a good balance to deal with things at home."

Brady on the potential of getting hit by former teammate Chris Long: "I hope he doesn't hit me too hard if he gets a shot. Hopefully he respects his elders a little bit out there . . . I really enjoyed my
time with Chris. He's a helluva player and he made huge plays for us last year. He's made some great plays for the Eagles this year. They have a dominant pass rush on both edges, right up the middle, and he's a big part of that. He's a great leader, practices his butt off, great enthusiasm. I have a ton of respect for him."

Kyle Van Noy on how comforting it is to know Patriots safeties are backing him up: "It's nice. [Patrick] Chung is a Swiss Army knife. [Duron Harmon] is the sniper in the back. And [Devin McCourty] is the clean-up. I would hope no one takes them for granted because all three are phenomenal players. They deserve a lot of credit for the success of the Patriots defense of late, and they deserve a lot of credit."

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