Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2018, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the running backs. 

UNDER CONTRACT
Sony Michel
James White
Rex Burkhead
James Develin (fullback)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Jeremy Hill

STANDOUT PERFORMER
Michel had one of the best seasons ever by a Patriots rookie running back, finishing with 931 yards in 13 regular-season games and spearheading a rushing attack that was the strength of New England’s offense during its run to a Super Bowl title.

After wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended in Week 16, the Patriots became a run-first team, and Michel thrived. Behind a dominant offensive line and a powerful lead blocker in Develin, the first-round draft pick averaged 100.4 rushing yards per game over his final five contests (including three playoff games) and rushed for seven touchdowns during that span, six of which came in the postseason.

Michel scored the only touchdown of Super Bowl LIII and set a Patriots Super Bowl record with 94 rushing yards in the team’s 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

White also was phenomenal as a pass-catcher during the first half of the season — he was on pace to break the NFL record for receptions by a running back — before suffering an injury in Week 9 and falling off in November and December. Despite that second-half swoon, White still smashed his previous career highs with 87 catches for 751 yards and seven scores and tied an NFL playoff record with 15 catches in New England’s divisional-round win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

As a team, the Patriots ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards, tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns and third in rushing attempts. Their 485 postseason rushing yards were the most by any team since the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Hill enjoyed a strong preseason and beat out Mike Gillislee for a roster spot but tore his ACL in Week 1, ending his season. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Patriots opt to re-sign the former Cincinnati Bengal and give him another shot this summer.

Health was the biggest issue for this position group as a whole. Michel (three games) and Burkhead (eight games) both missed time with serious injuries, forcing the Patriots to use wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as their primary ball-carrier during a two-game stretch around Halloween. Michel, Burkhead and White all stayed off the injury report during the home stretch, however, with all three playing in each of the team’s final eight games.

Patriots backs also struggled in short-yardage/goal-line situations for much of the year — prompting the team to give Develin more carries than ever before — before largely remedying those problems in the postseason.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Michel’s development. For all the success Michel had as a rusher this season, he was a non-factor in the passing game. After missing the entire preseason — a key growth period for NFL rookies — with a knee injury, Michel caught just eight passes on 14 targets for 59 yards and no touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs and dropped one of his two targets in the Super Bowl. Expect running backs coach Ivan Fears and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to work on diversifying the 24-year-old’s skill set this offseason.

2. Unlike last year, when the Patriots needed to replace leading rusher Dion Lewis, and the previous year, when they swapped out LeGarrette Blount, there shouldn’t be a whole lot of turnover at the running back position this offseason. With Michel, White, Burkhead and Develin all signed through at least the 2020 season, the backbone of this group should remain intact.

Expect the Patriots to instead make a few minor moves to fill out the bottom of the depth chart. That could mean re-signing Hill, who’s expressed a desire to keep playing after his season-ending injury; adding another veteran free agent; or drafting a back, which they’ve done in just one of the last four drafts and two of the last seven. At the very least, you’ll likely see a few cheap veterans or undrafted free agents brought in for camp competition.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Tight ends (Feb. 13) | Wide receivers (Feb. 14) | Offensive line (Feb. 15) | Defensive line/ends (Feb. 18) | Linebackers (Feb. 19) | Cornerbacks (Feb. 20) | Safeties (Feb. 21) | Specialists (Feb. 22)

Thumbnail photo via Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports Images