At way too many points last season, the burden on Tom Brady was amplified due to the lack of anything resembling an average running game. Following the injuries to Dion Lewis and Legarrette Blount, veteran RB Steven Jackson was signed from his couch. While Jackson’s efforts down the stretch were admirable, the former Ram was clearly on his last legs, and the position was one that presumably had to be addressed in the offseason. As free agents (Forte, Powell, etc.) linked to the Pats came and went, we assumed the front office would prioritize taking a back early in the draft. We were wrong again. While a move could absolutely still be made between now and week 1 (Bishop Sankey from the Titans? Knile Davis from KC?), it also very well may be the case that Belichick is happy with the backs currently on the roster, even with projected starter Lewis still on the mend.
The McOffense mostly categorizes running backs in 2 ways: early down bruisers, and 3rd down pass catchers. As presently constituted, the depth chart looks somewhat like this (PRB=power running back, 3RB=3rd down back):
PRB: Blount, Tyler Gaffney, Donald Brown, Brandon Bolden, Joey Iosefa
3RB: Lewis*, James White, DJ Foster
I expect four of the names above (two power guys, and two 3rd down guys), along with fullback James Develin to make the final 53. Here’s how I see the 3rd down group shaking out: when healthy, Lewis is a lock. White had flashes last season as a pass catcher (40 receptions, 410 yards), and further helped his cause against the Saints last Thursday with a 56-yard screen and run, plus a handful of tough rushing yards including a successful 2-pt conversation. Foster, an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State hasn’t done himself any favors in camp, and nagging injuries could derail his chance of making the roster. At this point, injuries aside, Lewis and White look like the guys barring a huge drop-off from White, or an incredible couple weeks from Foster. Now, the tough part, the big boys.
Joey Iosefa is a fullback by trade, and will likely be a practice squad member. Donald Brown received $300K guaranteed (markedly more than the $100K Blount received) but has not been on the field much, and was not active during Thursday’s game. Dependability is huge, and unless Brown can prove to be a steady contributor, his stint as a Patriot will be a short one. Another outlet in which Brown can earn a roster spot: special teams. On a related note, while Brandon Bolden provides depth as a versatile back that can run through the tackles and provide a solid pair of hands out of the backfield, his core value is on the said special teams. I could see a direct Brown vs. Bolden battle for a roster spot.
I’m a fan of incumbent early down guy Legarrette Blount, but is anyone really still sold on him as the surefire lead back? The good news is, the coaching staff is familiar with him and he’s a known commodity (for better or worse). For a 6-foot, 250 pounder, Blount is deceptively shifty, and moves pretty well in the open field. If you were a 190-pound corner, would you get in front of that? Probably not. Unfortunately, Blount is slow to the hole, and it takes him a good chunk of turf just to get rolling. With the unevenness of the O-line, he’s been ineffective at times as a Patriot and relies on above average offensive lines play to get any meaningful yardage. This leads to the critical question for the remainder of camp and preseason: is the unknown Tyler Gaffney an upgrade on first and second down over Blount?
If you had no idea who Tyler Gaffney was before the Saints game, I don’t blame you. He’s been stashed on the IR for two years after being claimed off waivers from the Panthers who selected him in the 6th round of the 2014 draft. He has great size for a lead back (6’1 225), and ran for over 1700 yards and 21 touchdowns during his last year at Stanford. Gaffney formally introduced himself to Patriots Nation on Thursday night with a 44-yard touchdown run, and led the team with 64 rushing yards on 9 carries. He doesn’t strike me as the quickest or fastest back, but his vision, strength, and patience look to be on par with starting caliber NFL backs. If Gaffney can keep the momentum going, it would not shock me in the slightest to see him usurp the starting big back job from Blount and make the final 53. This battle is just getting started and it will be an important one to keep focus on as we get further and further into the preseason/camp.
We’re onto ChiTown.