As the March 17 start of NFL free agency draws closer, NESN.com is identifying potential New England Patriots targets at key positions of need.
Up next: running backs.
Patriots running backs signed for 2021: Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor
Patriots free-agent running backs: Rex Burkhead, James White
Level of need: moderate
2020 stats: 28 catches, 249 receiving yards, receiving TD; 77 carries, 235 rushing yards, rushing TD
Why he fits: The Patriots are set on early downs with Harris, Michel and Taylor, so we’re only really looking at pass-catching options in case New England misses out on Burkhead and White in free agency. Even if Burkhead and White depart, the Patriots still could view Taylor as a potential future third-down back. Still, New England probably would prefer certainty in the role.
Johnson is one of the most accomplished pass-catching running backs in the NFL. Since 2015, he ranks fourth among running backs in receptions, second in receiving yards and seventh in receiving touchdowns.
2020 stats: 31 catches, 236 receiving yards, receiving TD; 119 carries, 505 yards, two rushing TDs
Why he fits: Williams would be a slightly pricier option than Johnson, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if the running back market runs cold this offseason with the lower salary-cap figure. Williams is a balanced back who can run or catch out of the backfield.
2020 stats: 33 catches, 253 yards, receiving TD; 81 carries, 319 rushing yards, five rushing TDs
Why he fits: There are durability concerns with McKinnon, who didn’t play in 2018 or 2019 because of injuries, but he was on the field for a full 16-game slate in 2020 with the 49ers. He’s an explosive option out of the backfield who would provide a different look than some of the Patriots’ third-down backs of the past.
2020 stats: 20 catches, 146 receiving yards, receiving TD; seven carries, 20 rushing yards
Why he fits: Thompson’s best years are behind him, but he could be an insurance piece if the Patriots count on Burkhead (knee injury) and Taylor in 2020.
2020 stats: nine catches, 96 receiving yards; 59 carries, 254 rushing yards
Why he fits: Breida didn’t quite pan out in Miami last season, but he showed plenty of promise in his three previous seasons with the 49ers. He has 76 career receptions for 657 yards and shouldn’t command a massive contract in free agency. The Patriots could get on a reduced rate on a one-year prove-it deal.