Figuratively speaking, the New England Patriots have injected steroids into their running-back-by-committee approach.
While nearly every team in the NFL has transitioned to an offensive system with two feature backs over the last few years, the Patriots have entered training camp with four capable starters, and each one has a specific skill set for certain situations.
“They’ve all been productive,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “That would be the No. 1 thing. Each guy’s a little bit different. They have their own style, but they’ve all been productive. I think in a way they kind of complement each other in terms of their running styles. Some guys have power. Other guys have more emphasis on quickness and speed. Some guys are probably a little better inside runners. Other guys are better outside runners. Some guys are a little better in the passing game. Some guys might be a little better in protection.”
Laurence Maroney — coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season — is the prototypical starter who has home-run potential on every play, and at 24 years old, he’s young enough to take on the bulk of the carries. During his rookie year in 2006, he teamed with Corey Dillon to give the Patriots one of the best one-two punches in the league.
The Patriots also added 11-year veteran Fred Taylor, who amassed 11,271 rushing yards and 70 total touchdowns during his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Taylor is more of a threat in the passing game than Maroney because of his blocking and receiving skills, and Taylor is also a punishing runner between the tackles. He is a sizeable upgrade over LaMont Jordan, who left to join the Denver Broncos in the offseason.
Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris have also returned from last year’s crew, and Faulk is coming off of his best season in New England. He had 507 rushing yards and career highs of 58 receptions and 486 receiving yards. Faulk, a 10-year veteran who turned 33 in June, also scored six touchdowns last season. He is the best third-down back of the unit because of his pass-catching ability, and he’ll also see a bulk of his playing time in long-distance situations.
Morris might be best used in short-yardage situations when the Patriots need a back to slam through the line to pick up a first down, and he is probably the hardest, most physical runner in their backfield. The lifelong AFC East resident — he played four seasons in Buffalo, three in Miami and is entering his third year with the Pats — rushed for career highs of 727 yards, seven touchdowns and a 4.7-yard average in 13 games last season.
“We’ve got a lot of great running backs,” Maroney said. “It’s just a blessing to be around these guys. I know I can learn a lot from [Faulk], Sammy, Fred T., the young guy BenJarvus [Green-Ellis]. We’ve got a lot of talent in the room, and that’s one thing we aren’t lacking in the running back room is talent. I think it’s going to be a problem for the defense because it’s one fresh back after one fresh back after one fresh back, so it keeps everybody healthy and the game going smoothly.”