Reporter tip: If you want a guaranteed quality quote, ask New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears about J.J. Taylor.
Fears, a coaching staff staple whose Patriots tenure predates Bill Belichick’s, is known for sharing candid assessments of all of his players. But he’s always had a soft spot for Taylor, New England’s diminutive second-year back.
Early in Taylor’s rookie season, Fears compared him to both Dion Lewis and Darren Sproles — remarkably high praise for an undrafted free agent. Fears continued to pump up Fears over the ensuing months, though he would acknowledge the 5-foot-6 powerhouse had holes in his game that needed patching.
A superb 2021 preseason earned Taylor a spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster and helped drive the team’s decision to trade Sony Michel. One day after the cutdown deadline, Fears was asked what he expects from Taylor in his second pro season.
His response was predictably entertaining. Here it is in full:
“Well, J.J.’s always saw things very well. The thing that sort of held him back is what he did in the passing game was a little bit limited in what we needed him to do. And he’s picked that up big time. He’s picked that up big time. He’s made some great strides in the passing game, he’s a hell of a lot more productive as a route runner — whether we can catch him or coming out of the backfield. And the kid is just — he stepped up. He stepped up and figured out that he’s got to learn what we do. And he still makes some crazy-ass mistakes, but for the most part, he’s doing a hell of a job for us. He really is.
“I mean (laughs) there’s some stuff he missed in the last game that you’re like, ‘You know the answer to that question.’ But the look is kind of funny, and you say, ‘What in the world were you thinking, son?’
“He still has those moments, but I have to admit J.J. has come a long way. A long way. I mean, last year we wouldn’t have thrown him into the passing game to save his ass. But right now, yeah, he stepped up and he’s made it kind of interesting for us. He’s still got — I can’t tell you what it is, there are a couple of things he’s got to do for us before we say, you know, we’ll leave him there in the passing game all the way. There’s still a couple little things he’s got to do.
“As a runner? As a runner, this son-of-a-gun, I’ll tell you what: He’s going to cause some people some problems. He’s little as (expletive), and people kind of find it hard to find his butt. When he goes to the line, they can’t find him. So that makes it exciting for him, he gets some plays that (other) guys don’t get, because of his size. But he’s strong, he makes people miss, he’s explosive, he’s got great vision. The kid’s got some stuff going on. I’m kind of happy to have him around. I hope we have a chance to make something happen.
“I think you’re going to like this kid when he’s out there on the field.”
Taylor’s 7.8 yards per carry during the preseason led the NFL. He also ranked third in rushing yards; second in rushing yards over expected, per NFL Next Gen Stats; and first in all-purpose yards, racking up 371 in three games between carries, receptions, kickoff returns and punt returns. Buffalo’s Marquez Stevenson ranked second with 297. Patriots standout rookie Rhamondre Stevenson was third with 255.
To Fears’ first point, Taylor also caught all 10 of his targets across New England’s three exhibition games, totaling 62 yards. Only one NFL running back caught more passes this summer. Taylor also contributed one of the loudest blocks of this Patriots preseason, decking New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams in pass protection.
The Patriots could use Taylor to fill the void left by Rex Burkhead, a versatile back who was able to contribute as a rusher and pass-catcher. Lewis and Danny Woodhead were among Burkhead’s predecessors in that role.
Taylor appeared in just six games as a UDFA last season, rushing 23 times for 110 yards and catching one pass for 4 yards.
The Patriots kept a total of five running backs on their initial 53-man roster, plus fullback Jakob Johnson. Taylor, Stevenson and Brandon Bolden will complement lead back Damien Harris and veteran pass-catcher James White.
“This year’s group is probably as deep as it’s ever been, as far as talent level goes and as far as guys making plays and being productive in the preseason,” Fears said.