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Patriots Prognostication: Running Backs

Next one of the series - everyone's favourite whipping-horse position, Running Backs. This is the one position everyone seems to have a staunch opinion about - the Pats must cut this guy, have to sign this other guy, absolutely need to trade the house to get someone else. That was readily apparent from the comments and poll on Richard Hill's breakdown and analysis of the 2009 Pats running back stable - 34% of the voters wanted to leave the stable as it is or tweak it a little, 12% wanted to add a free agent, 9% wanted to trade for a RB (perhaps LenDale White, depending on his status), and a whopping 43% wanted to draft an RB. Those wanting to draft guys threw around names like Montario Hardesty, LeGarrette Blount, Dexter McCluster, CJ Spiller, Ryan Matthews and Jahvid Best attached to draft picks from anywhere from the first round to the seventh. 

Good ideas all, (although some were more realistic than others), and all worthy of consideration. After looking at all the names and potential draftees/tradees/free agents posited as options, I get the fun part of predicting what Belichick will actually do based on his history, preferences for building a roster, overall roster needs, and the market for players at the moment. Once I get this completely wrong, you get to laugh at me after the season starts. Huzzah! More after the jump...

When I was analysing how Belichick has added RBs to his rosters, I focused most of my attention on the years post-Bill Polian rule change, reason being the Pats changed their identity and relied a lot more on Brady's arm after those years (2004 onwards, in particular). With the sole exception of Kevin Faulk, all of his pre-2004 RBs have turned over anyway, and even Mr Faulk completely changed his style from being a semi-bust as a run-first feature back into a pass-catching, blocking, shotgun-draw running phenom.

Going over the RBs that were taken in the draft or in use in training camp, from 2004 onwards, we have a list of:

  • Kevin Faulk, drafted 1999 draft, 2nd round (46th overall). Still on team.
  • Corey Dillon, traded for in 2004, 2nd round draft pick to Bengals just before draft. Released March 2, 2007. Retired.
  • Cedric Cobbs, drafted 2004 draft, 4th round (128th overall), released in training camp.
  • Kory Chapman, UFA, signed, released and then signed to practice squad, 2004. Signed to Colts active roster from practice squad, September 2004.
  • Kyle Eckel, UFA, April 25, waived September 2005. Re-signed September 2007. Cut August 2008. Re-signed September 2008. Cut September 2008.
  • Patrick Cobbs, UFA, signed May 15 2006. Traded away September 1, 2006.
  • Laurence Maroney, drafted 2006 draft, 1st round (21st overall). Still on team.
  • Sammy Morris, FA, signed 3 March 2007. Still on team.
  • Justice Hairston, drafted 2007, 6th round, 208 overall (compensatory pick). IR August, released September 2007.
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis, UFA 2008, signed May 1 2008. Waived August, practice squad September 1. Activated October. Still on team.
  • LaMont Jordan, FA, signed July 26, 2008. One year contract expired, went to Denver.
  • Fred Taylor, FA, signed February 27 2009. Still on team.
  • Chris Taylor, FA, signed August 17, 2009. Not tendered an RFA offer sheet.

There's a fair mix in there - a particularly good tradee (Dillon), a few useful free agent pickups (Morris, Taylor, Jordan), and a few draftees (Maroney with a 1st-rounder, Cedric Cobbs with a 4th-rounder, Justice Hairston with a 6th-rounder), but most noticeable was the consistent addition to the roster of rookie Undrafted Free Agents, the stragglers of the year's draft (Chapman '04, Eckel '05, Patrick Cobbs '06, Green-Ellis '08).

There are two patterns emerging from this data. Firstly, more often than not, the trades, free agent pickups and draftees were due to need - in 2004, the Pats needed to replace Smith in '04 and traded for Dillon, in 2006, Pats needed to supplement Dillon (who was injured in 2005) and drafted Maroney, in 2007 the Pats needed to replace Dillon and signed Morris (who was then injured), 2008 the Pats needed a backup plan in case Morris was hurt again and signed LaMont Jordan. In 2009 Jordan went to Denver and Morris was still injury-prone, so they signed Fred Taylor. Basically, whenever there was less than two fully healthy RBs, the Pats would be active in free agency or trade.

The second trend is the likelihood that the Pats will take at least one young RB, every year, irrespective of need. In 2004 they took UFA Chapman, in 2005 it was UFA Kyle Eckel, in 2006 they drafted Maroney and took UFA Patrick Cobbs too. In 2007 they drafted 6th rounder Justice Hairston with a compensatory pick. In 2008 they took BenJarvus "Law Firm" Green-Ellis as an Undrafted Free Agent. And last year, part-way through the season the Pats picked up ex-UFA Chris Taylor from free agency. Every year the Pats have picked up a low-round draftee or UFA, irrespective of whether they've taken a stud RB in free agency or the draft.

Taking those two trends, I'd extrapolate it into 2010 like this. Looking at trend one - that if there are less than two fully healthy RBs, the Pats will be active in free agency or trade - I suggest that the Pats won't be. Trite, sure, but the Pats have actually got a pretty solid stable at the moment - Maroney, Taylor, Morris, Faulk and BJGE all under contract at the moment. In other words, merely fitting in another veteran would be difficult. While I've already written about how I'd be happier if the Pats added a Big Back or Fullback to the rotation, if they go with the RB stable from 2009 and add in more targets for Brady's passing, I'd be content enough.

Taking the second trend, I fully expect the Pats to either use a low-round pick or take a RB in Undrafted Free Agency. If the kid shines in training camp and makes the team (perhaps at the expense of an ageing and fragile Sammy Morris), that's great - it's a net win to the Pats if they upgrade at the position and get younger. If he doesn't (and as that list showed, most don't) then there's no big loss, either - they kicked the tyres on a younger guy, got a good look at him, and then have the option of putting him on the practice squad.

While it might not satisfy some readers of this column, I don't see it as likely that the Pats will make any significant pursuit of a top-ranked RB in the draft or free agency. On the flipside of that, I belive it's very likely that the Pats will take either an Undrafted Free Agent RB or use one of their lower-round picks on a RB, particularly if that guy can return kicks and/or receive passes. The Pats have a need to get younger at the position - Morris, Faulk and Taylor are all at the eldest of the League's RBs - and they also have a need to have bodies to return kicks and punts, particularly with Welker likely remaining injured for the first part of the season.

With those factors in mind, what RBs could you see the Pats taking? Fifth, 6th or 7th rounders, possibly either as FB/HB hybrids to replace Morris, or in the kick returning Faulk/Maroney mould? Have at it, people.