Players on the Roster:
BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Restricted Free Agent
Sammy Morris (FB/RB)
The Patriots need a running back. That's pretty much a universally accepted statement. The question is whether the running back will be for depth behind BJGE, or whether they'll be a #1 back, putting BJGE at back-up/tandem. Woodhead is a spark plug and will most certainly be a part of the offense next season. BJGE is the quintessential Patriot and should be extended a contract. Morris and Taylor are old and I find it hard to believe that both players will be back next season; Morris could be back as a fullback and nothing more. Faulk is the largest question mark; will he still manage to be a large part of the offense, even though Woodhead has basically assumed the role? Or will Faulk retire during the pre-season?
The Patriots should notch three roster spots for running backs- BJGE, Woody and Clayton. Clayton is currently only a practice squad caliber player, but BJGE has done more than enough to convince me not to write Clayton off as a potential producer. I would expect the Patriots to add two more running backs to the roster- one in the fullback type of role (Morris? Le'Ron McClain?) and one as either the #1 running back or the depth running back. The question which will have the largest impact on the Patriots' offense is which type of running back will they take? Do the Patriots draft a potential #1 running back like Mikel LeShoure or Mark Ingram, or sign an elite free agent like DeAngelo Williams? Or do they find another committee back in the draft like Shane Vereen or in free agency like Pierre Thomas?
It comes down to how the Patriots perceive BJGE. Do they believe he's only just started to tap into his potential? Or was last season all that the Patriots will get from him? I have to believe that BJGE is somewhere in between (he has room to grow, but I don't think he'll ever develop into a top breakaway running back), so I think the Patriots should draft a running back that complements BJGE's (and Woody's) strengths. BJGE is a strong runner who will get the short yardage and who will move the chains. Woody is a receiving running back who is a threat out of the backfield and who can pitch in on pass blocking.
I think the Patriots' need a homerun threat. They need to find a player who can take half the carries of BJGE and is able to break free for a big run every game. He could also emerge as a great pass blocker and take the third down snaps over Woody (who is a good, not great, pass blocker). So here's the running back the Patriots' need to draft:
Home Run threat (sub 4.4 40)
Great Pass Blocker
That's the guy the Patriots' need to draft. Does anyone meet those qualifications? That's the question.
Here's a quick summary of each player:
Thomas Clayton - Played in Week 17 against the Dolphins in garbage time. Not a large part of the offense, but was on-and-off the roster throughout the season. Should enter next season on the roster bubble.
Kevin Faulk - Injured in Week 2 against the New York Jets. What happened the last time a leader and All-Time Patriot was injured in Week 2 against the New York Jets? I seem to remember the Patriots finding a more-than-capable replacement who took over the position. I'm talking about Brady/Bledsoe if you weren't catching on. Is Woody the Brady to Faulk's Bledsoe? We'll find out this off-season. Before his injury, Faulk was continuing his recent success as a receiver and a change-of-pace running back.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis - BJGE was successful when the Patriots' offense was successful. That's an important distinction. BJGE was perfect for his role- when the Patriots were ahead by a lot, they could hand the ball off to BJGE who could move the chains. However, the Patriots never really relied on BJGE to start the offense on his own. During the regular season, when the Patriots were held to 23 points or fewer, BJGE ran for under 2.2 yards/carry in each game. Does this mean BJGE is a product of the surrounding success? I think this is a strong possibility. Regardless, BJGE was great for the offense and had an extremely productive and successful season.
Sammy Morris - Morris has become a special teams player for the Patriots, occasionally moonlighting as the team's fullback. I feel like once the Patriots find a new guard for the offensive line, Dan Connolly will start playing fullback again. Morris is a solid player who does his job, but he's definitely replaceable.
Fred Taylor - Freddy has a good first game of the season against the Bengals. Then the wheels came off. I can't see Taylor coming back next season.
Danny Woodhead - Woody emerged as a great contributor for the Patriots' offense as both a running back, a receiving back and a pass blocker on third down. He became an integral part of the two minute drill and he was one of the most valuable mid-season acquisitions in the whole league. He should be a large part of the offense next season, but the Patriots could upgrade on the "pass blocking" by finding a new player.
The Patriots need to find an additional running back for their stable. Whether from free agency or the draft, and whether the player is a #1, a tandem, or a committee back, the Patriots need to find someone to fit their system. Free agents DeAngelo Williams, Pierre Thomas, Michael Bush or Brandon Jackson could all become solid pieces of the Patriots' puzzle. Looking at the draft, players like Mark Ingram and Mikel Leshoure could become feature backs, while players like Ryan Williams and Jordan Todman could become solid tandem backs. In the mid rounds, the Patriots could pick up players like Shane Vereen, Delone Carter or Bilal Powell to join the stable. The Patriots need to find someone to fit in.
Best Case 2011 Running Back Roster:
RB: Draft Pick/Acquisition - BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Danny Woodhead
FB: Draft Pick/Acquisition/Sammy Morris
Practice Squad/Camp Bodies: Thomas Clayton
Retire: Kevin Faulk