This is part two of a position by position roster preview ahead of Patriots training camp.
Roster locks: Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, James Develin
Strong chance to make the roster: Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden
Undrafted rookies: Nick Brossette
Michel – the University of Georgia product had a successful rookie season with the Patriots forcing 25 missed tackles (tied for 20th among RBs) and producing 54 first downs on the ground (seventh in NFL). In the second half of the season, he led all running backs in rushing grade with eight-plus defenders in the box, according to Pro Football Focus (86.0). Michel has terrific contact balance, vision between the tackles and finishes every run with power but the next steps for him are returning to his college-level explosiveness and versatility. In 2018, the Pats ran the ball 76 percent of the time when Michel was on the field. Look for Sony to have a more significant role in the passing game during his second season and hopefully rediscover that top gear with healthy knees.
White – White came in at number five on my “ten most important Patriots” list as the second-most productive receiver on the team. White is Mr. Reliable with his coaches and teammates gushing about him all last season for his mistake-free brand of football. The Pats running back is right behind Julian Edelman as the Patriots’ biggest matchup problem for opponents accumulating 751 receiving yards (second among running backs) and seven red zone receiving touchdowns (led running backs) in 2018. White will be a major factor once again in 2019.
Burkhead – Burkhead might be the most versatile back on the Patriots roster. He doesn’t have a dominant trait, but he’s a solid runner and an above-average receiver. The Patriots ran the ball on 38 percent of Burkhead’s snaps becoming a significantly more balanced attack with him in the backfield (White: ran on 19.7 percent, Michel: ran on 76 percent), which is likely why he saw an increase in playing time late in the season.
Harris – the Pats rookie gives them another between the tackles option that has a similar skill set to Michel. Harris averaged 3.16 yards after contact per attempt thanks to a great feel for space and contact balance. He’s also a potential option in the passing game both as a receiver and pass protector, but we thought the same thing about Sony when the Patriots drafted him a year ago. Harris should lessen the load and offers the Patriots some high-upside insurance if Michel has injury troubles next season.
Bolden – Bolden’s 270 special teams snaps ranked fourth on the Patriots two seasons ago, and that’s likely where he’ll find himself now that he is back in New England. The 29-year-old played on four different special teams units in 2017 and was such a presence in the locker room that many of his teammates kept in touch with Bolden while he was in Miami last season. His locker remained empty with his boombox in front of it all season. Everyone is happy to see Bolden back with the Patriots.
Develin – the battering ram fullback played a career-high 497 snaps last season as the Patriots morphed into a “regular” team operating out of 21-personnel as their base (two wide receivers, one tight end, two backfield players). The Patriots accumulated 29 explosive runs with Develin leading the way for the New England running backs. The Patriots’ passing game struggled with Develin on the field, but he’ll be a significant component of their rushing attack, especially without Rob Gronkowski.
Biggest question: are there enough touches to warrant carrying five running backs?
The Patriots learned the hard way last season that you can never have enough depth at running back when they were forced to use Cordarralle Patterson in that role after injuries to Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill. However, the math of the 53-man roster tells us that carrying Michel, White, Harris, Burkhead and Bolden gets complicated, and there are some redundant skill sets there. Do the Patriots really need both Harris and Burkhead on the roster? The best 53 says yes, but someone is going to be the odd man out in terms of playing time. If Michel and Harris tear it up in camp, it wouldn’t shock me if they shop Burkhead.