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Running Backs, the Patriots, and Bargain Hunting

The Patriots stable of running backs is promising, but it's missing a key component. But what exactly are they missing?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Running back LeGarrette Blount's career was almost over. He had a history mired with controversy and physical confrontations. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent a late first round pick to grab superstar Doug Martin to be the feature back, even though Blount already had a thousand yard season under his belt.

He was trade bait and the fish weren't biting. He was big, but not a short yardage back. He wasn't fast. He came with baggage.

What team would want him?

Bill Belichick knows that running backs are fungible and that unless the back is a truly special talent, a back is a back is a back.

Blount just happened to be a proven 1,000 yard back.

For Bill, Blount's proven track record meant more than whatever prospect he could select in the 7th round and he offered the trade to Tampa. It proved to be one of the best moves of the season.

Blount took the starting spot from the injury-prone Shane Vereen and the fumble-prone Stevan Ridley and didn't look back. He finished the season and earned himself a strong contract in Pittsburgh where he'll likely assume a similar role in tandem with sophomore and fellow big-man Le'Veon Bell.

So the Patriots are now down a running back. Vereen and Ridley are free agents after 2014. Brandon Bolden will be a restricted free agent. This stable isn't very, well, stable.

And we've reached a point where running backs are now undervalued. Teams are drafting running backs later and its because it's considered a "passing league". I can't blame them.

But when 68 running backs have posted 1,250 yards or more from scrimmage over the past ten seasons, and only three are undrafted (Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, Ryan Grant)? Maybe teams need to re-evaluate the value of the running back.

The average selection of the first five running backs has been creeping upwards over time, from being selected at an average position of 18.8 from 1974-1978, to 22.5 from 1989-1993, to 26.2 from 2004-2008.

The average draft position of the top five running backs over the past five season: 41.3

Last season marked the first time that a running back wasn't selected in the first round. It was only the fifth time in the past three decades that the first back fell out of the top 20.

No, they should not be drafted in the first round. But the difference in caliber between a second or third round running back and an undrafted back is real and needs to be considered. The acceleration in the decline of draft position is enough to support the assertion of "undervalued."

As the Patriots position themselves for a fourth running back in their committee, or a potential life without Ridley and Vereen, they need to draft for transition and for skill set. Do they try and replace what Blount brought to the team? Or do they draft a contingency for Ridley or Vereen?

CBS ranks only one back in the top 50 of prospects, which means that we can expect some of the draft's top players to be available in rounds three and four.

If we're looking at player types, there are three distinct categories of backs, so let's break them down:

1) Speed back. These may be considered one trick ponies, but get them the ball in the open field and they'll make defenses struggle. They're not a receiver, they might not be a blocker, but they have the potential to hit a home run every time they touch the ball. NFL comparisons: David Wilson, Lamar Miller.

Draft prospects: Tre Mason, Lache Seastrunk - Mason is the player expected to go in the second round, while Seastrunk is one of the most electrifying players in the draft (although he's a quintessential one-trick pony).

The Patriots don't have a player like this on the roster, so we can either a) expect the Patriots to add one to fill that gap, or b) expect the Patriots to ignore this type of player because Belichick doesn't see the gap as necessary to fill. So we don't know anything. I'm leaning to the latter and think the Patriots pass on both, even though Seastrunk has my highest grade for potential.

2) Thumpers. They use their size to wear down the defenses and grab the extra yards. They can help close out games and they're actual more en vogue right now than you would think. NFL comparisons: Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount.

Draft prospects: Carlos Hyde, Jeremy Hill, Terrance West, Andre Williams. All of these bigger backs are perfect for wearing down opposing defenses, and West is even directly compared to Blount with regards to playing style. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots spent a mid rounder on any of these, although Hyde has a great chance of being drafting late in the second round (slightly out of the Patriots price range). Also worth noting that West gained over 2,500 yards on the ground last season, while Williams picked up nearly 2,200 yards.

3) Everything Backs. They can run, they can block, they can catch. Jack of all trades and you hope they can master some of them. This is type of player that is targeted as a desired prospect in the passing league. NFL Comparisons: LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte.

Draft prospects: KaDeem Carey, Bishop Sankey, Devonta Freeman, Charles Sims. This is the category that I would most believe the Patriots to draft. I have Sankey as my highest graded running back, with Charles Sims extremely close behind. I'm lower on Carey than most, while Freeman would be an excellent fit. All three of these players are savvy enough runners to make plays in the backfield, shifty enough receivers to make plays in the open field, and strong enough to help out with pass blocking. Sims in the third round would be a tremendous fit.

Make yourself familiar with these players. I'm more confident that the Patriots will take a running back than they will take a defensive tackle. There's plenty of players to like in the draft and their perceived value is much lower than what they actually provide on the field.

Bill Belichick knows this. He'll take advantage. He always does.