You could argue the Patriots largely should ignore the running back position this offseason. Even if James White leaves in free agency or retires, New England should hand the passing-back keys to J.J. Taylor and maybe re-sign Brandon Bolden to do Brandon Bolden things.
But the Patriots are nothing if not unpredictable, and NFL free agency presents a great platform for speculation. So, let’s give it a shot.
Assuming New England doesn’t trade Damien Harris (something we recently made a case for) or rookie standout Rhamondre Stevenson, it won’t be in search of a lead back this offseason. The Patriots don’t need to sign someone like Leonard Fournette, draft someone like Isaiah Spiller or trade for someone like Saquon Barkley.
Instead, the Patriots could be in the market for a new passing-game back, should White and/or Bolden leave and they’re not sold on Taylor’s ability to carry the torch. But who could be on their radar?
Here are five running backs New England could target in free agency:
Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta Falcons
2021 stats: 618 rush yards and six TDs; 52 catches for 548 yards and five TDs
If the Patriots are going to sign any semi-expensive back this offseason, it probably should be Patterson. The veteran teased his dual-threat abilities during his one season in New England, but he reached his final evolution in 2021 with the Falcons. Patterson was one of the NFL’s most dynamic players and enjoyed a career season. His size, athleticism and versatility would help New England’s offense, and he could replace Gunner Olszewski as a kick returner, should the 25-year-old restricted free agent leave this offseason. Plus, Patterson recently expressed a desire to play safety. It’s almost like he’s trying to force a return to the Patriots.
Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
2021 stats: 592 rush yards and two TDs; 43 catches for 311 yards
Edmonds probably is looking to sign with a team that can guarantee him a lot of touches, so the Patriots probably aren’t a good fit. Still, if Edmonds is willing to play a backup role, he could add a lot to New England’s offense as a change-of-pace back. Ultimately, though, if the Patriots want a small receiving back on the roster, they should just go with the cheaper option in Taylor.
Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
2021 stats: 364 rush yards and two TDs; 22 catches for 178 yards
Buried behind Austin Ekeler, Jackson didn’t receive a ton of opportunities during his four seasons with the Chargers. But he’s shown flashes of being a dangerous dual-threat weapon, and still is just 25 years old. Jackson also is coming off a disappointing season, which could keep the price low.
Darrel Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
2021 stats: 558 rush yards and six TDs; 47 catches for 452 yards and two TDs
Williams is an intriguing player, as he’s more proven than Edmonds and Jackson and might cost less than both. He had his busiest and best season as a pro in 2021, filling in for injured lead back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Williams is very good as a receiving threat out of the backfield and would be a seamless fit into the Patriots offense.
Duke Johnson Jr., Miami Dolphins
2021 stats (five games): 71 rush yards and three TDs; four catches for 41 yards
Johnson didn’t sign with a team until Dec. 20 when he landed with the Dolphins. That the Patriots didn’t pursue him after White went down with a season-ending hip injury, and with Taylor being a regular healthy scratch, likely tells you all you need to know. That said, New England clearly was confident in Bolden’s ability to fill the void, so it didn’t really need Johnson. But if Bolden and White both leave this offseason, Johnson might be worth taking a flier on, if for no other reason than to see what he does in training camp. He was one of the NFL’s most prolific receiving backs from 2015 through 2019 and is good in blitz pickup.