Re-signing BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an easy decision for the Patriots. His tough downhill running style and excellent ball security adds a welcome change of pace to New England’s pass-oriented attack. At the beginning of the year he was seemingly buried on the depth chart behind Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk, but has emerged as a reliable option, especially in short yardage situations. Green-Ellis had 13 touchdowns in the regular season, placing him in a tie with Rashard Mendenhall for the second-most in the league behind Arian Foster. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, despite his longest gain being only 33 yards. I expect him to reach a long-term extension with the Patriots at a moderate (3-4m per year) price.
Kevin Faulk is also a free agent, and will be returning from an ACL tear. He is 34, and unlikely to play more than another year or two – if that. With the emergence of Danny Woodhead, who has filled Faulk’s third-down back role admirably, it is unlikely that Faulk will return. There is a possibility that the Patriots bring him back in a mentor/depth capacity, but that seems like the type of sentimental decision that Bill Belichick is not known for. If Faulk returns it will most likely be because he has earned his spot, and the Patriots see him as a player who can make important contributions to the offense.
I do not expect Fred Taylor or Sammy Morris to be re-signed. If this is the case, New England will need to add some depth behind The Law Firm and Woodhead. They have Thomas Clayton, who saw a little playing time toward the end of the Week 17 game against Miami, but he has very limited NFL game experience. It is possible he could make a Green-Ellis-esque leap next season, but that is a best-case scenario. More likely the Patriots will add a veteran or draft a running back to round out the position.
Pierre Thomas is a free agent target that would make sense for the Patriots. Thomas had a good season for the Saints in 2009 when he tallied 793 rushing yards and six TDs, with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. He also caught 39 passes for 302 yards and two scores. An ankle injury kept him out for most of the 2010 season. Thomas is only 26, and if he is available at a reasonable price, the Patriots should try to nab him. He is a bit more of a dynamic runner than BJGE, and bigger than Woodhead at 5’11" and 215 pounds. Pierre is an adept pass-catcher, and could be a welcome, well-rounded addition to the Patriots squad.
Ricky Williams is another possibility, but at 33, he would not be a long-term solution. Williams has played in all 16 regular season games the past three years, splitting carries with Ronnie Brown (also a free agent). In 2009 Ricky racked up 1,121 rushing yards and 11 TDs with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, but declined in each category this season. He finished with 673 yards, a 4.2 average, and only 2 TDs. He has had some fumbling issues, especially earlier in his career. Ricky has 50 fumbles (30 lost) in ten seasons, including four fumbles (two lost) in 2010. Williams would be a cheap short-term rental to add depth, but I would rather see New England bring in a younger player with more potential over Williams.
Green Bay fullback John Kuhn is another intriguing name. He has shown some strong play this year, including a supporting role in the Packers run to the Super Bowl. He is a fan favorite in Green Bay, and they will probably make a serious effort to re-sign him. The Patriots have not operated with a traditional fullback since Heath Evans left the team after the 2008 season, but Kuhn is very good in short yardage situations, and has shown solid hands to catch passes out of the backfield. Kuhn could take over the role of Sammy Morris as he is good on special teams, and would be a major upgrade in terms of run-blocking ability. If the Patriots were serious about developing a power running game to compliment their passing attack, Kuhn and Green-Ellis would be an excellent combination.
There are a few more interesting veterans slated for free agency that the Patriots could consider. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams has put up big numbers in the past, but would likely command a large salary. Fullback-turned-running back Mike Tolbert is a big body that could be used to wear down a defense, but it is unlikely that San Diego would allow him to leave. Brandon Jackson of the Packers is an all-purpose back who has spent time as the number-one option, and would not be too expensive. Pittsburgh’s Mewelde Moore would also add some depth. He is not especially fast or elusive, but has become a good pass-blocker, and can catch the ball.
The Patriots were lucky to have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead step up this season, and the future looks bright for both players. They are each great in their roles, however I believe New England needs a quality third option that is a more versatile back with a combination of speed, power and catching ability. These players are not easy to find, but having one in the backfield would make it harder for defenses to anticipate what type of play the Patriots plan to run. If Pierre Thomas’ contract demands are too high, they may have to look for this player in the draft.