While finding a dominant pass-rusher still remains New England’s number one priority, filling the power-back vacancy left behind by LeGarrette Blount is a close second. The passing game has been improved this offseason with the addition of Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen, but the Patriots are in danger of becoming a lopsided, pass-heavy offense. Being able to run the ball well goes beyond moving the chains and scoring goal-line touchdowns:
1) It keeps the defense “honest.” This is a phrase often used by analysts, but the meaning is simple. When a team knows that you are throwing the ball, they can shift their defense in such a way that makes it exceedingly difficult to convert, even with Tom Brady under center and Gronk contesting for the ball. Defensive backs can start further from the line of scrimmage, and linebackers know to drop into pass protection. Defensive lineman and edge rushers don’t have to worry about gap security–meaning their sole focus becomes getting to the quarterback as opposed to plugging avenues for running backs. Even a deficient defense can do well when they know the offense is throwing, which is why coaches refer to certain combinations of players in “obvious” passing situations, such as 3rd & 7+. When you lack a solid running game, every down becomes an obvious passing situation. It happened to New England at the end of 2015, when Blount and Dion Lewis had both been lost to injury. The Patriots were forced to rely upon a defunct Steven Jackson coming out of retirement, and fourth-string special teamer Brandon Bolden to run the ball. The Pats went 2-4 in their final six games of the regular season, and it was largely attributed to the inability to run the ball.
2) Taking pressure off the quarterback. Tom Brady will be 40 years old at the start of the 2017 season. While he imagines playing late into his 40s, realistically he is only one major injury away from retirement. The less your quarterback throws the ball, the less often he is at risk of being hit or sacked. Accumulated hits/sacks over the course of a season is a highly undervalued stat in the NFL. After sixteen games, a quarterback’s play diminishes with the accumulation of hits. The Patriots would have made the Super Bowl this past season without Tom Brady serving a suspension, but it’s interesting to wonder if that four game hiatus led to better play at the end of the season. In 2015 Tom Brady took 38 sacks during the regular season (and many more QB hits). Compare that to the 2014 and 2016 season, where he was sacked 21 and 15 times, respectively. Both of those seasons ended in Super Bowl victories. Tom Brady’s suspension, while unjustified, also meant four less games of taking sacks and risking potential injury. A strong running game serves the same purpose by taking the pressure off of the quarterback. Even on passing plays, it prevents the defense from over-committing and leads to a less aggressive pass-rush overall.
The bottom line is the Patriots need to establish a strong running game, and it becomes more important as Tom Brady enters the final season(s) of his career. The current roster holds hero-of-Super-Bowl-LI James White, Dion Lewis, and newcomer Rex Burkhead. All three players fill a similar role. All three are undersized, 5’10” and smaller scat-backs that are dangerous for their pass-catching ability. It would be a rare sight for James White to line up and try to run the ball through the tackles. Dion Lewis does so occasionally, but possess the quick-cut ability to find holes and escape tackles. Burkhead will do more running between the tackles than either Lewis or White, but is still primarily a satellite back to be used in the passing game. With Blount out the door, the Patriots need to find a power back that can hammer defenses.
There are three options available.
Last year most fans anticipated the Patriots drafting a running back in the third or fourth round. Instead, they went with shoring up the defensive/offensive line and bringing in a handful of wide receivers. While the same expectation to draft a RB in the upcoming draft persists, it seems less likely now given the pick-selection the Patriots hold after trading away their first and second round. Assuming there are no more trades ahead, the Patriots don’t pick until the third round at #72. While running back is a hole on the Pats current roster, it’s not pressing enough to warrant their first pick in the draft. Bill Belichick will likely target an offensive tackle and edge rusher with their first two picks (#72 and #96), to get the most value out of the third round. Taking an RB in the fourth round with pick #131 seems more likely. While the pool of talent will have slimmed by the fourth round, evaluations of 2017’s RB class have quite a few still left on the board in the fourth round. The Patriots could get the big, power back they are looking for in Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma or Dont’a Foreman from Texas (projected at pick #129 and #142). The downside of a young running back is the adjustment period to the physicality of the NFL and learning a new offense. Fumbles always seem to be an issue for rookie backs, and Bill Belichick is as hard-nosed about turnovers as any coach in the league. However, the upside is a pair of fresh legs to hammer and wear down defensive lines throughout the season. While I appreciate the veteran leadership of James White and Dion Lewis, the RB room needs some young talent. White, Lewis and Burkhead are all on the final year of their contract (Burkhead was signed to a one-year deal this offseason). It seems unlikely for Belichick not to pad out his RB group ahead of these departures.
Bringing in a Free-Agent Veteran
The Patriots already signed Rex Burkhead this offseason, but they could dip into free agency again to sign a veteran power-back. The most intriguing option is Adrian Peterson, who worked out with the Patriots earlier in the week (and left without a deal). Many have speculated that the Patriots workout was to the benefit of both parties, without either intending to sign. Peterson gets a nod from the best team in the league to generate interest in his free agency, while the Pats get a bargaining chip in dealing with LeGarrette Blount. However, a match between the Pats and Peterson seems fortuitous. Peterson is by far the best power back available on the current free agent market. He would fit perfectly in the Patriots scheme of running the ball from under center, as opposed to out of the shotgun.
Many have pointed to Peterson’s abysmal pass-catching ability as a barrier to fitting into the Pats offense, but that’s not how he would be used. The Patriots have an abundance of pass-catching backs in Lewis, White and Burkhead. If AP came into the fold, he would be used exclusively as a bruising, between the tackles power back in the same way as LeGarrette Blount the past two seasons. Very rarely did the Patriots pass to Blount (7 receptions total last season). The primary barricade to signing AP is the asking price. Peterson’s contract was for $12 million last year; Blount signed a one-year deal for just over $1.5 million. The Pats did sign Burkhead to a 1-year/$3-million contract, but Peterson’s asking price will be at least double that figure. There has been a tradition of veteran players coming to New England on cheap, mercenary contracts to win a Super Bowl. The Pats would probably be open to getting AP in the 4-5 range, but I don’t see him settling for less than $6 million. It will come down to interest from the rest of the market and how much of a paycut Peterson is willing to take in the pursuit of a championship.
Another interesting, but unrealistic choice is Jamaal Charles. Charles is an absolute monster of a running back, averaging 5.5(!) yards per carry and rushing over 1,000 yards five times in his career. However, the Patriots are likely to pass on Charles given concerns over his health and motivation moving forward. Charles has played in just 8 games over the last two seasons, and has played a full season just 3 times in his career. If there was a way to guarantee his health for one season, Charles would be high on the radar for many teams beyond the Patriots, but it seems unlikely he will have the longevity needed to maintain consistency on offense. Losing Blount to injury in the 2015 season severely hamstringed the Patriots Super Bowl run, and I don’t see the Pats taking a risk on such an injury-prone player (although a similar argument could be made for AP coming off injury in 2016).
If the Patriots cannot come to an agreement with Peterson, I would like to see the team bring in DeAngelo Williams for a workout. The former Steelers running back is older than the rest at 34, but has shown an amazing amount of consistency for a back over the age of 30. Williams was a key plug-in for Pittsburgh during periods of injury to Le’Veon Bell, and seems to have enough left in the tank for one final season. Again, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots signing a free agent running-back over the age of 30 when they could bring back Blount, but Williams has shown a potential over the last two seasons.
Which leads to the final option.
Re-Sign LeGarrette Blount
While the rest of the article may give off a different impression, I really like LeGarrette Blount. He’s one of those players that was essential to the Pats in the season leading up to Super Bowl wins in 2014 and 2016, and proved to be a devastating loss when he went down to injury in 2015. He is a player who has proven he’s willing to take a paycut to help the team win and, what’s more, all signs point to him wanting to stay in New England. Player-team loyalty is undervalued in the NFL, particularly for an aging running back in the final seasons of his professional career. Blount has two Super Bowl rings. Now should be the time for him to pad out his bank account ahead of lifelong retirement. But he has the desire to win. He loves New England, and he loves being on a team with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. There is also a loyalty factor in the running back room. Listening to Blount in interviews throughout the season, he is constantly thinking about his teammates James White and Dion Lewis. Blount may have led the league in touchdowns and had one of the greatest seasons of his career, but he attributes much of his success to improved offensive line play and the dual-threat ability of Lewis and White to get the team near the end-zone. In all, he’s a humble guy that still has the desire to win over the age of 30, and he’s willing to offer his services at a discount to stay with the team he loves.
But it’s hard to imagine the Patriots keeping him. My ideal scenario would be a roster featuring Lewis, White, Burkhead, Blount and a drafted rookie-power back. Blount provides leadership to the offense and as a veteran could help groom his first-year replacement. It’s not a stretch to imagine the Patriots fielding five running backs going into the 2017 season, just as they did this past season: Blount, Lewis, White, Boldin and D.J. Foster. However, consider the scenario. Lewis was on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and did not return to the team until the bye week just before playing Seattle. Brandon Boldin had one rushing attempt throughout the entire 2016 season, but made an impact on special teams (which is his primary position). D. J. Foster had seven rushing attempts, but only played three games —the rest of his game days were spent on the Inactives list, providing insurance in the event of a Blount/Lewis injury.
James White and Rex Burkhead are sure-locks on the roster at the start of the season. Dion Lewis also has a high chance of returning, given his production over the last two seasons. Re-signing Blount means no chance of Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles and reduces the chance of the Pats picking up a power back in the draft. It is possible that Belichick has no intention of drafting a running back this year, and is willing to allow White, Lewis and Burkhead play out their one-year contracts, re-sign the most productive, and go heavy on running back next draft. But the Pats need an established running game in the twilight years of Brady’s career, and trusting that production to a couple of rookie backs without veteran leadership is a disaster waiting to happen (Denver was forced to lean on rookie Devontae Booker after C. J. Anderson suffered a season ending injury. The result was missing the playoffs the year after winning the Super Bowl).
Again, I like Blount. I hope Belichick finds a way to squeeze him onto the roster for one more season. But I am so intrigued by the prospect of a more productive veteran free agent in the form of Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles. Despite the success they had last season, it’s been nearly a decade since the Patriots had a top rushing attack. Blount may be the unfortunate casualty to a re-invention at the power back position.