The New England Patriots’ smallest player made a big impression Sunday in his NFL debut.
Undrafted rookie running back J.J. Taylor played just nine offensive snaps against the Miami Dolphins but touched the ball on five of them, finishing with four carries for 28 yards and one catch for 4 yards in a 21-11 Patriots victory.
Taylor’s four rushing attempts went for 4, 8, 5 and 11 yards. Listed at just 5-foot-6, 185 pounds, he showed impressive power and burst for a player his size.
Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears has been hyping up Taylor’s talents for weeks, comparing the diminutive ball-carrier to Dion Lewis during training camp. The Arizona product’s first taste of game action did not disappoint.
“(His performance was) about what I hoped for and actually what I expected,” Fears said Wednesday in a video conference. “The guy is a pretty good player — really a good runner. He’s sort of fits into that mold of small backs like (Darren) Sproles and those guys that’ve been successful. But it’s early. It really is early to tag any kind of title on him or anything like that. But I’ll tell you what, we’re really happy to have him out there. The guy is busting his butt. I’m happy with that.”
A Sproles comp — even one with those qualifiers — is high praise for any young player. Sproles, another 5-foot-6 dynamo, played 15 seasons in the NFL, rushed for more than 3,500 yards, caught more than 500 passes and scored 64 career touchdowns (23 rushing, 32 receiving and nine on returns).
Taylor, who was left off the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster before being promoted from the practice squad last week, is one of just four current NFL players who are listed at 5-6 or shorter. Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen, Philadelphia Eagles running back Boston Scott and New Orleans Saints receiver/return man Deonte Harris (all 5-6) are the others.
Taylor actually measured in at a hair over 5-foot-5 at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, so his listing is a tad generous. His fellow Patriots backs call him “The Torpedo” — a fitting moniker given his heat-seeking style of play.
“He can play hide-and-seek really well with the guys,” Fears said. “He’s really hard to find. It’s something that — there are things that could happen. Who knows? Size could be an advantage for him. You never know. But we love what he’s doing. The guy plays big for his size.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Taylor “ran competitively” and “ran hard” against Miami. He also has been pleased with the rookie’s overall development.
“He’s done all he can do to this point,” Belichick said Tuesday. “There’s really nothing more that he could have done. He’s out there every day. He works hard. He’s one of the hardest-working rookies, one of the hardest-working kids on the team, and I think that’s shown up in the improvement and the performance that he’s been able to have through the course of training camp and now into the start of the regular season.
“But there’s a long way to go. I think we’ll just have to see how he develops and whether he can continue to improve and when he gets his opportunities to play, how productive he can be with those. But he’s earned what he’s gotten to this point, so we’ll see what happens.”
It remains to be seen how the Patriots will structure their running back hierarchy once Damien Harris returns from injured reserve, but Taylor should continue to receive touches in the meantime.
“J.J. had a very, very productive training camp,” Fears said. “Very productive. The guy, in the first couple of days, was right on point. He was quite exciting. So we wanted to give him a chance and see what he could do, and he’s earned a chance to see more.”
Taylor was one of six Patriots players to record at least 20 rushing yards against the Dolphins, along with fellow running backs Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White, wide receiver Julian Edelman and quarterback Cam Newton. New England totaled 217 rushing yards on 42 carries, its highest totals since the 2018 season.