FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have spent the past few weeks scouring the free agent running back market.

Monday’s practice illustrated why.

With starter Rhamondre Stevenson held out of team drills for the second time in training camp and Ty Montgomery absent for the third straight day, the Patriots’ only available running backs on Day 5 of camp were Kevin Harris, Pierre Strong and J.J. Taylor.

Strong and Harris were Day 3 picks in last year’s draft, and both played sparingly as rookies, combining for 152 rushing yards, two touchdowns and just over 100 offensive snaps between them. Taylor has spent most of his three-year Patriots career on the practice squad. His 2022 stats: 10 carries, 9 yards.

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It’s not that those players performed poorly on Monday. All three had positive moments in New England’s first padded practice of the summer. Harris, a hard-running sixth-round pick out of South Carolina, stepped up as the top early-down option in Stevenson’s absence, consistently repping with Mac Jones and the offensive starters while Strong and Taylor mostly worked with backups.

While Taylor is a roster long shot, it would not be surprising to see Harris and/or Strong take on larger roles in Year 2, as former Patriots backs like Shane Vereen, James White and Damien Harris did after their own quiet rookie seasons.

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Head coach Bill Belichick said both have taken “a big jump” compared to where they were a year ago. There’s certainly potential there. But not enough to bank on.

It would be incredibly risky for the Patriots to enter the season with only some combination of Harris, Strong, Taylor and the oft-injured Montgomery behind Stevenson, who was overworked during his superb 2022 season and wore down in December and January.

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New England tried to give Stevenson a new veteran running mate when they signed James Robinson early in free agency, but he lasted just a few months before being cut in June. Since then, they’ve hosted Leonard Fournette and Darrell Henderson for workouts, brought Ezekiel Elliott in for a visit and acknowledged their interest in Dalvin Cook.

If they were confident in their depth at the position, the Patriots wouldn’t be sniffing around nearly every notable unsigned back. Their need at the position is clear and obvious.

Landing Cook — who’s rushed for 1,100-plus yards in each of the last four seasons and is a solid pass-catcher — would be a coup for New England, but he seems more likely to join the Jets after his much-ballyhooed weekend visit to New York.

The more attainable, yet still sufficiently attractive target is Elliott.

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He’s no longer the superstar he was early in Dallas Cowboys tenure, but the 28-year-old still can be an asset in short-yardage and goal-line situations and has a track record of success in the passing game.

Elliott tallied 47 or more receptions in every season from 2018-21, and even in a reduced role last year following the emergence of Tony Pollard, he ranked second in the NFL with seven 1-yard rushing touchdowns, per Pro-Football-Reference, trailing only Detroit’s Jamaal Williams. Elliott also is regarded as one of the best in the league at pass protection and blitz pickup — skills Belichick and the Patriots have long prioritized in their running backs.

The contract demands are a factor here, as it’s unclear what type of deal the former $90 million man is seeking. Elliott and the Patriots were unable to reach an agreement during his Saturday trip to Gillette Stadium and subsequent Seaport dinner with Mac Jones, and the DeAndre Hopkins situation showed that Belichick isn’t willing to “overpay” for offensive reinforcements, even though the Patriots have the salary cap space and financial flexibility to do so.

But as long as Elliott’s ask isn’t outrageous, the Patriots should push to get a deal done. Because what they have right now at the position won’t cut it.

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Featured image via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images