In the free agent profile I wrote from earlier in the week, I predicted that running back LeGarrette Blount would sign elsewhere for 2014. While the Patriots were obviously thrilled with Blount’s improvement and performance down the stretch, they are likely to set a limit for how much they’re willing to spend to keep him. As seen with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2012, the Patriots know that decent backs are a dime a dozen in this league.
In an ideal Patriots fan’s world, Blount won’t see his free agent value bloated and he will return to the Patriots on a reasonable salary. However, the team must be prepared for the scenario where he doesn’t return.
Currently, the Patriots have a pair of fourth year backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final year of their contracts, as well as former undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden. Ridley is a talented back who would be the #1 guy on most team’s in this league. However, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff midseason after three straight games with a lost fumble. He did go the final six games of the year without fumbling, but it is tough to say if that gained him enough momentum for the coaching staff to trust him with a similar number of carries to the 290 he had in 2012. Ridley could end up being the lead guy in 2014, or he could be trade bait.
Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen are role players. Brandon Bolden was the definition of average in 2013. When Shane Vereen was injured, he struggled as the team's primary passing back. He also wasn’t particularly good or bad when asked to handle primary running duties. Shane Vereen might be the most dynamic of all the Patriots backs, but considering how the team utilized him down the stretch (very few carries on 1st/2nd down), it doesn’t appear they view him as a traditional move-the-chains back.
All of this simply goes to show that if LeGarrette Blount departs via free agency, the Patriots will be in the market for a running back.
One option they could take to fill that potential void would be to look to the draft. This draft class is particularly deep on running backs projected to go day two and early day three. We’ll cover the potential draftees in a lot more detail over the next two-plus months, but the Patriots could look to the future by picking up a back like BC’s Andre Williams in rounds three or four.
The other route the Patriots could go is free agency, where they could likely find a player who is less expensive than LeGarrette Blount. ProFootballFocus.com recently ranked their top 10 free agent backs, and there were a few names on their list that could pique the Patriots’ interest.
Making a move for Jones-Drew would be a move similar in nature to those the Patriots made in the past for the likes of Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor. Jones-Drew struggled as a runner at times in 2013, but according to PFF’s rankings, it was behind the worst run blocking unit in football. He’s 29, but if he’s willing to take a discount to come to a winning culture, his combination of power running, ability to block and skill catching the football could make him a great fit in New England.
In four years in Green Bay, James Starks never carried the ball more than 133 times. However, when he did carry the football, he has been a very effective back. In 2013, he ran for 493 yards on a 5.5 YPC average. Injuries have been the primary obstacle to a lead role for Starks. And with Eddie Lacy now entrenched as the lead back for the Packers, Starks should hit the open market. Because of his injury history, Starks is unlikely to command a big contract. That means the Patriots could likely buy low on Starks, and if he stays healthy, pair him with a Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen.
After an abysmal 2012 season with the Jaguars in which he averaged 2.8 yards per carry, Jennings bounced back big with the Raiders in 2013 and supplanted Darren McFadden down the stretch as the team’s starter. He’s got size at 6’1” and 231 lbs and power after averaging 2.9 yards after contact last year. He’ll be 29 next month, which means he may also be a buy-low investment similar to LaMont Jordan in 2008. He can catch the football fairly well, and didn’t fumble once for the Raiders in 163 carries in 2013.
Other names to consider: Ben Tate (likely comes with a high price tag), Toby Gerhart (fumbling issues), Donald Brown (not a workhorse type)
If the Patriots can’t re-sign Blount, who would you like to see them pursue?