State of the Patriots: Running back

By WEEI 93.7
As the NFL offseason heads toward free agency and the draft, all 32 teams must assess their own talent before they begin anew the roster-building process. With that in mind, is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the Patriots roster.

Running back

Returning players: James White, Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, James Develin (FB), Jakob Johnson (FB)

Free agents: None

2019 recap: The production from the running back position was a disappointment last fall in terms of the running game, primarily due to a less-than-stellar second season from 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel. After a solid rookie season and a rookie postseason that saw him churn out more than 300 yards and six touchdowns to key a run to a Lombardi Trophy, Michel averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in 2019. Certainly some of that had to do with a make-shift offensive line that left a lot to be desired, but Michel just didn’t have much spark in terms of maximizing his runs, either. While Rex Burkhead (65 carries for 302 yards) chipped in at times and James White was his productive self as a key part of the passing game with 72 catches for 645 yards and five scores, the backfield did little to help lift an offense that had plenty of other shortcomings. It was also curiously disappointing that third-round Alabama rookie Damien Harris couldn’t even get on the field, earning a mere four mop-up-duty carries for 12 yards in two games played while being a healthy-inactive 14 times. Losing Pro Bowl fullback James Develin to injured reserve after just two games – and then having the same fate with Jakob Johnson – also added to the problems with the rushing game. On paper the New England backfield committee had maybe as much overall talent as ever, but the results didn’t show up consistently enough on the field other than White’s continued reliability in the passing game.

2020 projection: Unless there is a mildly-surprising cut of a respected veteran like Burkhead (would save nearly $3 million on the cap) or key special teams cog Brandon Bolden (saving around $1.5 million) it would seem the Patriots backfield committee could return intact this coming season. The group would certainly get a massive boost of morale and production if Develin can get back to his bruising ways, though that wouldn’t seem to be a given by any means. After a stellar Super Bowl run followed by a shaky second season, Michel is at a sort of career crossroads. The word bust is already being bandied about and there is little question that he’s yet to display the playmaking ability he had a Georgia over the last two years of NFL action. Harris is a complete unknown, though his pair of 1,000-yard seasons at Alabama suggest he could be a reliable option, especially the way his Tide teammate Josh Jacobs took care of business as a rookie with the Raiders. Burkhead remains the same guy he’s always been – productive, talented and versatile but a question in terms of reliability and durability. Improvements in the offensive line, at tight end and in the passing game would all help the rushing attack. But at some point the group – particularly Michel – needs to prove it can be a consistent positive factor in the offense for a team that no longer rolls out of bed and rides the Tom Brady-led passing attack to 30-plus points on a weekly basis.

Draft/free agency need – Low: While the production may not have lived up to the talent or expectations, the running back position is one of the deepest and most versatile on the roster. White is one of the handful of best pass-catching bcks in the game. In theory, Michel and Harris should be reliable lead back options. Burkhead can be a factor on all three downs both as a runner and a receiver. So, really, there is no need to target running back in either free agency or the draft. Depending on health and Develin’s return, the position that may need to be addressed in terms of at least another option or camp competition is fullback. Otherwise, any additions at the running back spot would be made on value-based level and not out of need.