Rex Burkhead

In replacing Dion Lewis, rookie Sony Michel could bring a different dimension

In replacing Dion Lewis, rookie Sony Michel could bring a different dimension

Previously in the series:

Dion Lewis out. Sony Michel in. That's not the extent of the changes the Patriots made to their backfield this offseason, but it's the headliner. Lewis had what was far and away his best season as a pro in 2017, and it earned him a nice deal down in Tennessee: 896 yards rushing on 5.0 yards per attempt, and another 214 yards receiving on 32 receptions, with nine total scores. He had trouble getting on the field early in the year, if you remember, something that irked him, but when he took over lead back duties he made the most of his opportunity, establishing himself as one of the most elusive backs in the league. His 42 missed tackles forced as a runner were just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell, according to Pro Football Focus . . . and Bell took 141 more handoffs. The upshot? The 5-foot-8 water bug back leaves some big shoes to fill. Michel is a very different player. He checked in at 5-foot-11, 214 pounds at the combine in February, and at Georgia he looked more like a slashing, aggressive runner who's more likely to run through arm tackles rather than side-step them. But the way he could help make up for Lewis' loss is by serving as a true all-purpose player. He may have been the best pass-protector in this year's draft class, and he's a very capable receiver. The element of unpredictability Lewis provided the Patriots offense when he lurked in the backfield will still exist with Michel back there. Same goes for Rex Burkhead, who's back after re-upping on the one-year deal he in New England last offseason. He played in just 10 games due to injury but earned Tom Brady's trust quickly, and when he was healthy the Patriots weren't afraid to heave the football upon him as both a runner and a receiver. Burkhead ended up being targeted in the passing game or taking a handoff on 100 of the 195 snaps he played in the regular season. James White, headed into his fifth year with the Patriots, has become the leader of the group and should have his third-down role locked down. There are few players Brady trusts more in the passing game, and there's a reason. White was less likely to drop a pass than any other back in the league last year, coughing up just one out of 57 catchable targets in 2017, per PFF. Also back is Mike Gillislee, who may be vying for a big-back role with former Bengal Jeremy Hill. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden returns after re-signing this offseason, and undrafted rookie Ralph Webb out of Vanderbilt gives running backs coach Ivan Fears another accomplished SEC player in the room for depth. James Develin -- we'll include him here even though he actually meets more with the tight ends -- is back as well and just signed a new deal. 

As the 31st overall pick this year, Michel's spot on the roster is locked in. White and Burkhead are sure things as well. And, of course, let's put Develin in this category. The Patriots carried six backs (including Develin) heading into the Super Bowl in February, which was the number they held onto for most of last season. (Bolden didn't make the team out of training camp but was added later and reclaimed his role as a core special-teamer.) So with three running backs and one fullback considered safe bets for the roster, that leaves four players potentially competing for two spots. And that's only if the Patriots want to set aside a running back spot for someone who's going to contribute mostly on special teams. Bolden could be competing with other kicking-game specialists for a job, leaving Gillislee and Hill to battle for big-back duties. Webb seems like insurance for the team should they have an need a back with some sub capabilities. He had 68 catches during his career at Vanderbilt.

It's too easy to look at Lewis' departure and Michel's arrival and assume that will be a one-for-one swap this season. How Michel adapts to the pro game and the Patriots offense will dictate how much time he gets. So will injuries. If Burkhead can stay healthy, he could see a huge uptick in work in 2018 -- particularly if the team taps into his abilities as a receiver with Julian Edelman currently facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Odds are Michel, Burkhead and White (the favorite to take on third-down and hurry-up work) will split the majority of the workload by some unpredictable percentage that is sure to infuriate fantasy owners everywhere. Then there's Gillislee and Hill. Both players are looking for bounce-back seasons. Hill (6-1, 230) played in seven games and carried just 37 times for Cincinnati last year. Gillislee (5-11, 215) played in nine games, averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and spent a good chunk of 2017 as a healthy scratch. The Patriots have been steadfast in their belief of the importance of having a traditional big back on the roster, whether it was Gillislee, LeGarrette Blount or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But might Gillislee's season last year convince them that they can get by without one? Michel runs hard and is about the same size as Gillislee. Burkhead isn't tiny (5-10, 210) and was trusted with goal-line responsibilities at different points last season. How the Patriots choose to fill out the back-end of the depth chart here will be interesting, but not quite as interesting as trying to track how players like Michel, Burkhead and White will be deployed when healthy. Josh McDaniels isn't afraid to get creative, and if he feels like it would create mismatches, it wouldn't be totally unexpected to see the Patriots use more two-back packages than ever before. It's a talented group, and if all three of their top players are healthy, it'd be difficult to keep any of them off the field for long stretches. 

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.

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:

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... 


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.


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.  


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


Jeremy Hill already trying to recruit Eric Ebron to Patriots

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Jeremy Hill already trying to recruit Eric Ebron to Patriots

New Patriots running back Jeremy Hill is already recruiting free agents to join him in New England.

Just hours after Hill agreed to a deal with the Pats, he tweeted at tight end Eric Ebron telling him to do the same.

ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted Thursday that New England was on Ebron's "scheduled travel itinerary", so maybe Hill is on to something.

Not only is he recruiting, but the ex-Bengals back also tweeted at his former Cincinnati teammate Rex Burkhead about reuniting.

You think he's excited to be a Patriot?