Patriots Positional Outlook: Few Questions In One Of NFL’s Top Backfields

Who will be the lead back next season?

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February 16, 2022

As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2022, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2021, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. Next up: running backs.

UNDER CONTRACT
Damien Harris
Rhamondre Stevenson
J.J. Taylor

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
James White
Brandon Bolden

2021 SEASON REVIEW
The Patriots had their issues in 2021, but the running back position was not one of them.

Third-year back Damien Harris and rookie rusher Rhamondre Stevenson combined to form one of the best tandem backfields in the game. And, despite James White going down with a season-ending hip injury in Week 2, New England still received strong passing-game production from a running back, with veteran Brandon Bolden turning in a career season.

Harris was the breakout star, amassing 929 rushing yards (10th in NFL) and 15 touchdowns (second in NFL) despite missing two games. The 2019 third-rounder finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked running back, trailing Jonathan Taylor and A.J. Dillon. Harris was everything the Patriots could have asked for from a lead back: tough, explosive and a leader in the locker room.

Stevenson overcame early coaching criticisms, and four healthy scratches in New England’s first seven games, to provide arguably the most impressive campaign from a rookie back in 2021. He finished the season with 606 rushing yards and five TDs to go along with 123 receiving yards, ultimately earning the 10th-highest grade at PFF. The Oklahoma product at times looked like a franchise back, and you could argue he has a higher ceiling than that of Harris. Plus, Stevenson eventually earned the respect of Bill Belichick — no small thing.

Bolden, New England’s most reliable back in blitz pickups, racked up 405 receiving yards, good for eighth-most among all running backs. He added 226 yards on the ground and finished with three overall touchdowns. Second-year undrafted back J.J. Taylor seemingly was the favorite to fill White’s shoes as the passing-down back, but Bolden took the job and never let it go.

As a team, the Patriots ranked eighth in the NFL with 126.5 rushing yards per game and second in rushing touchdowns with 24. And the advanced analytics favored them, too, with New England’s rushing attack earning the seventh-highest DVOA at Football Outsiders, which ranked Harris and Stevenson fifth and 19th, respectively.

Of course, the Patriots’ offensive line is largely responsible for the success of the backfield, but the backs also deserve a ton of credit.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Is the James White era over? A model Patriot, White will enter free agency this offseason as a small, 30-year-old back coming off major hip surgery. Regardless of whether he signs elsewhere or returns to New England, it’s fair to wonder if his days as a quality NFL running back are over. There haven’t been any reports of White potentially retiring, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he elects to walk away after a stellar eight-year run with the Patriots. If White doesn’t return, it will be interesting to see whom New England uses as its third-down back in 2022. Bolden is a free agent this offseason, too, and Taylor has yet to force his way into more playing time. Still, Taylor is the more electric of the two and has the skill set to be the next great Patriots receiving back.

2. Who will coach this group? Ivan Fears, who has served as the Patriots running backs coach since 2002 (and has been in New England since 1999) reportedly will retire this offseason. Regularly one of the best quotes on the Patriots, Fears will be missed both on and off the field. As for potential replacements, former New England safety Vinnie Sunseri served as co-running backs coach last season and seems like a logical choice. But keep an eye on Patriots Hall of Famer Kevin Faulk, who worked as LSU’s running backs coach the last two years and helped the Patriots during spring practices in 2019.

3. What does the future hold for Harris? Yes, it’s fair to ask that question. Harris, who just turned 25, is scheduled to become a free agent after next season. If he stays healthy in 2022 and has another strong, if not even better, campaign, he could make a ton of money on the open market — and he and the Patriots know it. Spending a lot of money on running backs largely is viewed as bad business in the NFL, and New England might not want to pay Harris’ asking price. Plus, as tough as Harris is, he has battled injuries during his young career. It’s not hard to envision the Patriots, once the shrewdest operation in the NFL, trading Harris sometime before he hits free agency and rolling with a backfield of Stevenson, Taylor and, potentially, Bolden. That said, Harris is very good, and Belichick might be willing to pay extra for both his leadership and his ability to form a dynamic one-two punch with Stevenson for the next few seasons.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images
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