Early last season, New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears compared then-rookie J.J. Taylor to both Dion Lewis and Darren Sproles.
A year later, Fears hasn’t lost his affinity for the pint-sized Patriots rusher.
Fears’ Sunday afternoon video conference with reporters featured a rave review of Taylor, who rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries in Thursday’s 35-0 preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Doesn?t he (look impressive)?” Fears said. “He really does. Again, he’s a guy that was a hell of a runner in college, and his strong suit is as a runner. He’s a hell of a runner, got great vision, great feet, balance. The kid is a tough kid for a little guy, but he plays big. He plays big, so you love the stuff like that, and he’s got to compete, and he’s doing a great job of competing.”
Fears did add that Taylor is “still trying to take advantage of the other aspects of the game,” like receiving and pass-blocking. The 5-foot-6 back has caught all eight of his targets this preseason, totaling 49 yards.
“That?s the big stumbling block for most of these guys,” Fears said. “They’ve got to take advantage of the entire game. They’re not just in there to carry the ball. There’s other things that happen, and we’ve got to step up to the plate on all the aspects of the game, all of it. From blocking to running to catching to route-running, there’s a (expletive) load, plus, they have to be smart enough to handle a change-of-pace at the line of scrimmage.”
Though the Patriots boast enviable depth at running back, they lack a proven dual threat at the position, with Damien Harris and Sony Michel mostly contributing in the run game and James White focusing on pass-catching. Rex Burkhead brought that type of versatility during his four seasons with the franchise, as did Lewis and Danny Woodhead before him.
Last December, as Taylor was nearing the end of what proved to be a pseudo-redshirt rookie season (23 carries for 100 yards across six appearances), Fears tabbed him as a potential successor in that spot, saying the undrafted Arizona product “has a chance to be a combination-type player.”
“I think that’s the thing that J.J.’s got to answer for us,” Fears said Sunday. “That’s what he’s trying to give us. He’s trying to give us that look, whether he can do it or not. And I wouldn’t say he’s miles away. I definitely wouldn’t say that. I would say he’s closer than further away. He’s done a hell of a job trying to close that gap. He’s worked his butt off. That first preseason game, he got into some situations which he needed to show us he could handle.
“The big thing for J.J., in my opinion, J.J.’s got to do it consistently, and that also means in practice. Practice is very important to us and what they do in practice is important. And he’s got to develop consistency straight through, and I think he can. … The kid is talented. He’s definitely talented, but young. He’s got to be consistent at what he’s doing. He really does.”
Taylor has spent the spring and summer trying to prove he deserves a spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster. They currently have six capable running backs — Harris, Michel, White, Taylor, Brandon Bolden and fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson — and are unlikely to keep more than five.
“Only time will tell,” Fears said. “We’ll have to make a decision on some of these guys later on, but right now, they’re all in there, and they’re all doing a damn good job. There’s nothing negative I can say about them.”