As the calendar flips to June and the (expected) start of Patriots training camp draws closer, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s 90-man roster.
Next up: the running backs.
POSITION GROUP BREAKDOWN
Roster locks: Sony Michel, James White
Near locks: Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, FB Danny Vitale
On the bubble: FB Jakob Johnson, J.J. Taylor
MOST TO PROVE
Michel would be another valid choice for this category after he took a step back in his second pro season, but we’re zeroing in on Harris, whose entire 2019 production consisted of four garbage-time carries in a Week 7 win over the New York Jets. The third-round draft pick played just 10 total snaps as a rookie (five on offense, five on special teams), sitting out nearly the entire season as a healthy scratch.
Harris’ lack of usage was a tad surprising but not unprecedented. The Patriots took a similar redshirt approach with White (fourth round, 2014) and Shane Vereen (second round, 2011), and both took on much larger roles as NFL sophomores. Whether Harris can do the same will be a prominent storyline as Week 1 approaches.
Each year, the Patriots sign an undrafted running back to carry the load in preseason games (Nick Brossette, Ralph Webb, LeShun Daniels, etc.). These players rarely make the team. Taylor could be different. He’s tiny (5-foot-5, 185 pounds) but runs with deceptive power and can contribute as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher, displaying skills reminiscent of another diminutive Patriots back, Dion Lewis.
Taylor averaged 5.6 yards per carry at Arizona and rushed for 1,434 yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2018. His rushing numbers dipped last season (721 yards, 4.9 per carry), but he increased his receiving production, finishing with 32 catches for 289 yards.
The Patriots also paid Taylor $100,000 guaranteed — tied for third-most among their 15 UDFAs — despite having a fully stocked running back room. He’ll be a player to watch this summer.
BY THE NUMBERS
3.7: Michel’s yards-per-carry average last season, which ranked 18th out of 20 backs with at least 200 rushing attempts. Michel’s career rate of 4.0 yards per rush also ranks second-to-last (12th of 13) among players with 400-plus carries over the last two seasons.
First: Where White ranks among NFL running backs in touchdown receptions since the start of the 2018 season (12). He’s also third in both receptions (159, behind Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara) and receiving yards (1,396, behind McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler).
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can this group carry New England’s revamped offense (and will it be asked to)? With Tom Brady out of the picture, the Patriots almost certainly will be downgrading at the quarterback position this season. While the switch to Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer could have some benefits for the team’s pass-catchers, the strength of New England’s offense should be its rushing attack.
Michel, White, Burkhead, Bolden and Harris — a group NFL GM-turned-ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum recently called the best in the league — all are back from last season, and the return of starting center David Andrews will fortify the Patriots’ experienced offensive line. The Pats also replaced retired fullback James Develin — whose early-season neck injury was a major blow to their ground game — with veteran Danny Vitale and drafted two tight ends (Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene) with solid blocking chops.
2. Can Michel finally become a factor in the passing game? Since Michel joined the Patriots as a 2018 first-round pick, he’s caught a total of 19 passes on 31 targets for 144 yards and no touchdowns. New England has run the ball on 70 percent of his offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Info, resulting in a level of predictability that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels surely would like to lower.
Michel never will be a pass-catching wizard like White, but he proved during his time at Georgia that he can contribute in that area (64 catches, 621 yards, six touchdowns over four seasons). Brady appeared fed up with Michel’s receiving struggles at times, so perhaps the QB change will help unlock something here.
If Michel remains largely one-dimensional, he could lose snaps to Burkhead — the most versatile back on the roster — or Harris.
3. Any veteran cuts? If Harris’ role does increase, it could spell the end for someone like Burkhead, who’s been a valuable player when healthy but has missed 19 games over the last three seasons. The Patriots can save $2.9 million against the salary cap by releasing Burkhead. Cutting Bolden, a special teams stalwart and favorite of head coach Bill Belichick, would free up just shy of $1.5 million in cap space.
The Patriots might need to make some difficult financial decisions in the coming months. They currently have less than $1 million in cap room — not nearly enough to get them through a full season.
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images