After a few weeks of flirting, the Patriots have signed three-time Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million.
The #Patriots are expected to sign former #Cowboys star RB Ezekiel Elliott to a 1-year deal worth up to $6M after his successful FA visit earlier in camp, per me and @TomPelissero. Some backfield help for NE and a new home for Zeke… who plans to rock his No. 15 from college. pic.twitter.com/LrdbpHp17h
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 14, 2023
Though the contract includes a modest base salary of $3 million with $2 million in incentives, the Boston Globe’s Christopher Price reports that New England outbid other interested teams for Elliott’s services.
The running back room has been in desperate needed a reliable veteran since Damien Harris signed with the Bills in free agency. Though he and Stevenson formed one of the league’s best backfield tandems, Harris missed seven games last season due to injury. This contributed to Stevenson being grossly over-used, with his whopping 279 touches more than doubling the next closest Patriot.
Elliott may not be as explosive as Harris, but he’s had at least 230 rushes in each of his seven NFL seasons. Meanwhile, Harris has only eclipsed 140 carries once since being drafted in 2019, toting the rock 202 times in 2021. This availability helps explain the difference in money each player received, as Buffalo signed Harris to a one-year deal worth just $1.7 million. Elliott also provides excellent ball security, having not fumbled since Week 10, 2021.
While New England still has pair of veteran backs in J.J. Taylor and Ty Montgomery, Taylor has spent most of his career on the practice squad and Montgomery is more receiver than rusher. Montgomery also hasn’t practiced since injuring his leg early in camp.
Second-year backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris are talented, but neither has proven himself at the NFL level and Strong has missed the past two practices with an undisclosed injury. The Patriots signed two-time USFL champion C.J. Marable late last week, presumably in response to Strong’s absence, but he’s more of a change-of-pace/receiving back.
With Elliott officially on the roster, New England finally has an answer to their depth problem. But how exactly does he fit? To answer this question, I enlisted the help of insightful Blogging the Boys writer David Howman.
WHAT EZEKIEL ELLIOTT BRINGS TO THE PATRIOTS
The first thing Howman highlighted was Elliott’s character, calling him a hard worker and great teammate who was beloved by players and ownership alike.
Many have alluded to Elliott’s best fit being as a short yardage option, and Howman concurred, noting 11 of Elliott’s 12 scores last season came in goal-to-go situations. Jamaal Williams was the only back in the league with more rush touchdowns in these situations, and only Williams and Josh Jacobs had more conversions on the ground with two or fewer yards to go. Having a bulldozer who can win when the defense knows what’s coming should take a significant physical load off of Stevenson’s shoulders.
Zeke Elliott's 12 rush TDs last season were tied with Nick Chubb and Josh Jacobs for the 4th-most among RB
Not only is he a powerful runner with exceptional contact balance, but he never stops moving his feet. Also made defenders pay for taking bad angles in space pic.twitter.com/Kp6feSVWuM
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) July 29, 2023
Howman also said Elliott, who’s known for his acumen in blitz pickup, “might just be the best pass-blocking RB in the NFL.” The stats back this up, as Elliott didn’t allow a sack or hit in over 40 pass-blocking snaps last season. Stevenson is the Patriots’ best pass-catching back, so he’ll see the lion’s share of reps when they want to throw. But on 3rd & long when backs aren’t typically receiving threats, Elliott could be the primary option to help out linemen and pick up extra rushers.
Zeke Elliott had a down year receiving last season, but he's been a solid underneath option most of his career
— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 14, 2023
Given the max value of Elliott’s contract, which is on par with workhorse backs like David Montgomery and Joe Mixon, the Patriots are probably hoping he can rotate with Stevenson on early downs or even alternate drives like the offense did with Damien Harris.
Elliott played in a zone-heavy run scheme with Dallas, with many of his best runs coming on cutbacks where he could exploit over-aggressive defenders and break arm tackles. While New England is known for their downhill run scheme, it’s expected that O’Brien will implement a more diverse scheme that features different zone principles.
Like many veterans before him, Elliott could have a career resurgence with the Patriots, especially if the offensive line is at full strength. But Howman believes he’s best suited as a complementary piece in a three-man rotation, warning an over-reliance on jump cuts led to “a lot of wasted motion behind the [line of scrimmage]” and “instinctively [jumping] around instead of being decisive and cutting through a hole.” This will be something to monitor, as the Patriots’ coaches don’t typically tolerate overzealous footwork in the backfield.
That said, Howman believes Elliott has the tools to fit the Patriots’ system, explaining that “If he stops trying to jump to the corner and just gets downhill…he can be really effective.”
Whether Elliott exceeds expectations or becomes a key role player, he brings physicality and experience to a backfield that desperately needed an infusion of both, which should help preserve Rhamondre Stevenson and allow New England’s young backs the breathing room to come into their own.