The Patriots’ current depth at running back takes head coach Bill Belichick back to the 2018 season.
“We’ve had good depth at that position, and as we all know, that depth can change in a hurry, like it did in 2018,” Belichick said last season.
In 2018, New England had eight running backs in training camp with Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, Kenneth Farrow, and Ralph Webb.
Bolden, Gillislee, Webb, and Farrow were released by the team on cutdown day, leaving the Patriots with four running backs on their initial 53-man roster. Then, veteran Jeremy Hill tore his ACL in the season opener, Burkhead missed eight games with a neck injury, and Michel sat out three games with a knee issue.
Belichick converted wide receiver Cordarrelle Petterson into a running back for two games with the Pats’ evaporating running back depth. The head coach references the sudden shift whenever the issue of depth at a certain position on the roster arises.
Looking ahead to the 2021 season, the Patriots currently have six running backs with a strong case to make the team.
After drafting rookie Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round, New England has a logjam with Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, J.J. Taylor, and Brandon Bolden in the mix as well.
Although the 2018 season still haunts Belichick, the standard is for the Pats to carry four backs.
Due to the Stevenson pick and Harris’s emergence, former first-round pick Sony Michel is someone worth monitoring this summer.
In his second NFL season, 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris emerged as the best pure ball carrier on the roster, cutting into Michel’s playing time.
Harris’s PFF rushing grade ranked third among all running backs, behind only rushing champ Derrick Henry and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. Plus, Harris averaged over three yards per rush after contact in his breakout campaign.
Along with better breakaway speed and elusiveness than Michel, Harris does many of the little things well as a runner.
Here, the Pats are running a split-zone scheme with the fullback blocking across the formation. Harris presses to his right with the flow of the offensive line to set up the cutback lane, then makes a decisive cutback and breaks a tackle in the hole to explode into the open field.
Harris follows the fullback on a lead scheme in this play and gets rookie linebacker Patrick Queen to jump into the C-gap. With Queen vacating the middle, Harris changes course to hit this run in the A-Gap, then accelerates into the secondary. He made the safety miss and was a hustle play by Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey away from six.
Despite Harris’s skills standing above the rest, Belichick’s typical operating procedure is to spread the wealth around.
During the Belichick era, only three running backs have accounted for over 60 percent of the teams’ rush attempts in a season, and nobody, not even Corey Dillon in his monster year in 2004, eclipsed the 66% mark.
Couple things that stand out about new #Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson: patience, contact balance to run through tackles, and a little burst once he gets through the traffic. Can see the fit in the early-down back role. pic.twitter.com/rpWxr0IZ6u
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2021
Furthermore, New England stays away from playing rookie running backs like Stevenson with a few exceptions, such as first-round selections in Michel and Laurence Maroney.
Reading between the lines, Michel’s days in a Patriots uniform are numbered after the team declined his fifth-year option, making him a free agent following the 2021 season.
However, unless the team believes strongly in their younger backs, Stevenson and Taylor, the bet here is that Michel isn’t going anywhere just yet. Based on Belichick’s history, he’ll likely have a prominent role in New England’s backfield too.
With the 2018 season sticking in his mind, it’s hard to envision Belichick risking putting the team in the same conundrum again.
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag. As always, please subscribe to our YouTube channel for the Patriots Beat podcast and plenty of other Pats-related content. Now, to your questions:
Most roster projections have Jones and Cam as the only QBs, and trading Stidham to "backup needy teams." Assuming Cam is gone next year, Jones looks like a potential starter, and Stidham is partly decent in the system, wouldn't it make sense to keep Jones and Stidham instead?
— RabiesTurtle (@RabiesTurtle) June 24, 2021
The only way this scenario makes sense is if Jones wins the starting job in camp. Stidham isn’t starting meaningful games for the Patriots unless it’s absolutely necessary. This isn’t about next year, it’s about this year, and they’ll likely use Newton as a starter this year. If Mac is beating out Cam, then we can discuss Newton’s future with the team.
Do you think Winovich missed mandatory practices because Belichick has him bubble-wrapped in case he’s traded away?
— Russo (@TheBoyRu) June 24, 2021
My sense is that there’s no funny business going on with Winovich. The Pats’ pass-rusher is back in the Foxboro area and will be good to go for training camp. I’d also say that the trade rumors surrounding Winovich are more the media attempting to read tea leaves rather than an internal desire to deal the 2019 third-round pick. It could come to that if Ronnie Perkins or Anfernee Jennings emerge in camp, but the team still believes in Winovich and sees him as a part of their plans.
Any updates on the Gilmore situation? Or you think it’s more likely we wait to get a deal done with Jackson?
— Stan (@MrBandwagon75) June 24, 2021
There’s nothing major brewing with Gilmore as of yet. He is back in Massachusetts but still hasn’t officially reported to the team. As we’ve written about previously, there’s a belief among those involved that there’s a resolution to Gilmore’s contract situation that will keep him on the Patriots. The team wants to go for it this season, and trading Gilmore doesn’t line up with their thinking. My guess is that Gilmore will be back following a pay bump for this season and then see where he’s valued as a free agent next offseason.
Are there any veteran Corners you could see them signing in camp in the event of a holdout from Gilmore?
— Andrew Lykins (@ALykins32) June 24, 2021
There isn’t much out there in the way of veteran free agents at cornerback. The Patriots could try to get what’s left out of Richard Sherman, but I don’t love the fit. Sherman has only played in a zone-heavy coverage system with some man principles, but he mostly played his side of the field. Former first-round pick Gareon Conley is another option. We know Belichick likes to take swings with failed first-rounders, and Conley is a man coverage corner. If the Patriots want to add a veteran corner, they’re probably better off waiting until players become available at the end of camp.
Will they sign all the rookies or will their b a holdout ?
— Shy Sullivan (@CheyenneSulli14) June 24, 2021
The top three picks in New England’s draft class remain unsigned: Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Ronnie Perkins. With the rookie wage scale, those holdouts rarely happen because there are only minor details to negotiate for rookies. Plus, unsigned draft picks are paid for attending OTAs and minicamp, so there was no rush to sign them beforehand. Expect those deals to become official in the coming weeks.
In Barmore’s rookie year does Bill have him in Read, Disect & React mode or in down and distance Marvelous Marvin Hagler “Destruct & Destroy “
mode? I’m hoping for D&D.
— PatsSTH1969 (@PatsSTH1969) June 25, 2021
Sticking with the rookies, Barmore, albeit in a non-padded setting, was noticeably disruptive as a pass rusher in minicamp. His interior presence led to a strong push up the middle and a few quick inside moves to generate pressure on the QBs. I had some reservations with Barmore as a two-gapper due to inconsistent technique. That area of his game may need more development before he’s used in a larger role. However, watching him at minicamp, it might be difficult to keep him off the field. He’s their best athlete on the defensive line already.
What do u think Adrian Phillips role is on this team now that he don’t have to play in the box like he did last year ?
— Quayshaun Harris (@QuayshaunH) June 24, 2021
Phillips was a nice find and a bright spot on a lousy defense last season. He was squarely in the mix with the top unit in minicamp, playing the money-backer role as essentially a fourth linebacker. Although there are ways to play both of them at the same time, Kyle Dugger is going to cut into Phillips’s playing time significantly, as will Jalen Mills. With his special teams value, I’d be shocked if Phillips isn’t on the team, but it’ll likely be in a reduced role.
How can Uche, KVN, Judon, Hightower be fit into consistent 3-down roles together?
— 𝕄𝕆𝕊🌹⚡️🏝💫 🏖 (@uchexmcgrone) June 24, 2021
Adding Winovich in there as well, it’s a deep group, and someone will suffer from a playing time perspective. An early estimate puts Judon and Van Noy on the edge, with Hightower in the middle of the defense. That leaves Uche, Winovich, and others fighting for reps in New England’s base defense and as situational pass-rushers. It’ll look a lot like 2019, and we’ll probably see fronts with one or even no hand-in-the-dirt linemen since the linebackers are the Pats’ best pass rushers (outside of maybe Barmore and Wise). Depth is a good problem, but someone will play less than their skill level suggests.
Do you think this is the year Wynn stays healthy and/or do you think we will be talking a lot about OTs they might want to target early in the draft next year? (Which they might have to do anyway if they don’t sign Brown/use-Onwenu there)
— John BLM (Queer AF Football Pod) (@JohnALimberakis) June 24, 2021
Your guess is as good as mine on if Wynn will stay healthy. Who knows? But I fully expect offensive tackle to be one of the most talked-about positions for the Patriots in the 2022 draft cycle. You have a young quarterback who is a pocket passer, so they’ll need to make sure their line is stable. Picking up Wynn’s fifth-year option made sense because it was only a one-year commitment, but a long-term extension is a different story. If they are going to extend anyone, I’m more inclined to believe it’ll be Trent Brown.
What skill position group do you think has the best chance to be tops in the league statistically, and which player leads that charge? For example edge rushers with sacks, tight ends with touchdowns, etc
— Christian Kuriata (@Kuriata45) June 24, 2021
Fun question. I’ll go with cornerbacks leading the league in interceptions. Assuming Gilmore is on the team, the Pats have arguably the league’s best tandem with the former DPOY and J.C. Jackson, the latter of which is a takeaway machine. The Patriots should generate plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, giving their secondary ample opportunities to take the ball away.
Especially now that brady is gone, why wouldn’t the Patriots adjust their offense so that every single receiver isn’t on a site read? I don’t understand the benefit to having a scheme where only former QB receivers or HOF talents can really thrive.
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) June 24, 2021
I get this question a lot. First of all, I disagree that only Hall of Fame talents and converted quarterbacks succeed here. Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Brandon LaFell, and Brandon Lloyd all had solid stints in New England over the last decade, and none of them are going to Canton. Second, the system is way more complex for quarterbacks than receivers. QBs need to think about how all five eligible receivers convert their routes. Receivers need to worry about themselves and probably the guy next to them. The Pats’ offense utilizes route conversions or options because it’s common sense. If the routes don’t convert, they’ll have receivers running right into defenders. Running a seam route into a cover-two safety just doesn’t make sense, so they have their receivers bend the seams to split the safeties. It’s a complex system, and it takes time and good study habits to learn. But it’s also not rocket science. If I had to come up with a reason for the Patriots’ struggles with drafting receivers early in the draft, talent evaluation takes a significantly bigger piece of the blame pie than the playbook.