The evolution of the Patriots' running backs turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2010 season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis turned in a 1,000-yard year after starting out as a fifth-stringer, and Danny Woodhead emerged as a valuable scat back after getting cut by the Jets and watching Kevin Faulk go down in Week 2.
But this is still a transition period for the Patriots' backfield. Faulk hasn't fully committed to returning, while Fred Taylor will probably retire. It's hard to tell what will happen with free agent Sammy Morris, too.
Therefore, the Patriots will almost certainly draft a running back at the end of the month, and Illinois' Mikel Leshoure could be a perfect fit.
The 6-foot, 230-pounder set single-season program records as a junior in 2010 with 1,697 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns, including 17 on the ground. Leshoure was the Texas Bowl MVP during Illinois' win against Baylor with 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Why the Patriots Would Want Him
Leshoure is a powerful back who can run between the tackles and shove aside defenders, and he's got enough burst to get into the second level of the defense. He's also a good blocker and can catch passes out of the backfield, which makes him useful on three downs. Leshoure has the tools to be a No. 1 back in the NFL, and he just turned 21 last month, so he's got plenty of room to keep improving. There's a growing consensus that Leshoure will grow to be the best running back in the class.
Why the Patriots Might Stay Away
If the Patriots believe Green-Ellis will continue improving and can take that leading role for several more years, they might prefer to address another need high in the draft. The Patriots will almost certainly add a running back next week, but due to Leshoure's draft stock (read below), they might prefer to hold off until later.
Potential Impact in 2011
Leshoure and Green-Ellis would be able to split the load as the top-two backs on the roster, and that would make Woodhead take on more of a third-down role, or someone who could play in long-yardage situations when they need their elusive runner to make a play out of nothing. Leshoure probably wouldn't supplant Green-Ellis for the top spot as a rookie, but Bill Belichick will always ride the hot hand from game to game.
What The Locals Are Saying
Leshoure, who was born in prison, shares a story of his tough childhood.
Where Can the Patriots Expect to Draft Leshoure?
Leshoure has typically been viewed as a high second-rounder with the potential to sneak into the first round. With Mark Ingram's knee concerns, though, Leshoure could turn out to be the first running back off the board. The Patriots will likely have a chance to take him at No. 28 (and maybe even No. 33) as long as there isn't a shocking run on backs like there was with C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews in 2010.
Every day through April 28, NESN.com will spotlight one player the Patriots could draft with one of their first three picks.
Friday, April 1: California defensive end Cameron Jordan
Saturday, April 2: North Carolina defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Quinn
Sunday, April 3: Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward
Monday, April 4: Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones
Tuesday, April 5: Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara
Wednesday, April 6: Alabama running back Mark Ingram
Thursday, April 7: Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo
Friday, April 8: Florida interior lineman Mike Pouncey
Saturday, April 9: Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi
Sunday: April 10: Georgia defensive end/outside linebacker Justin Houston
Monday, April 11: Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers
Tuesday, April 12: Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt
Wednesday, April 13: UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers
Thursday, April 14: USC tackle Tyron Smith
Friday, April 15: Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor
Saturday, April 16: Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod
Sunday, April 17: Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith
Tuesday, April 19: Villanova offensive lineman Benjamin Ijalana
Photo via Flickr/jffreyt