Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): LeGarrette Blount (28), Brandon Bolden (25), Jonas Gray (25), James White (23), Tyler Gaffney (24), Dion Lewis (24)
Exclusive Rights Free Agents: FB James Develin (27)
Unrestricted Free Agents: Shane Vereen (26), Stevan Ridley (26)
2014 Review: The Patriots rushed for 1,727 yards, which was the lowest mark for the franchise since 2005 (1,512 yards). They featured a carousel of backs where none received over 100 rushing attempts. Vereen (96), Ridley (94), Gray (89), and Blount (60) were all reasonably consistent in their contributions, with all four averaging between 50-60 total yards per game.
Ridley was workhorse behind a really bad offensive line early on in the season, prior to his ACL and MCL tears in Week 6. He probably won't get the credit he deserves for how important he was for the offense until the offensive line solidified itself with the introduction of Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell as starters.
Vereen had his most important game in the Super Bowl, where he collected a team-high 15 touches for 77 yards. His highs for the season were 16 touches (against both the Jets and the Broncos), and he picked up 100+ yards twice (108 yards on 12 touches against the Bengals, 114 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 touches against the Jets). He was an integral player against the league's best defensive fronts and his value was obvious against the Seahawks.
Gray's talent is obvious. Of the four games (Bears, Broncos, Colts, Dolphins) he received 10+ carries, he averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in three of them (all but the Broncos). His 201 yards, 4 touchdown game against the Colts is one of the highlights of the 2014 season, along with his subsequent descent due to a faulty alarm clock.
Blount joined the Patriots in Week 12, grabbed the starting spot after Gray overslept, and never looked back. His 30 carry, 148 yard, and 3 touchdown performance against the Colts in the playoffs might not have caught the same headlines as Gray, but it came against an improved Indianapolis defense and was crucial in breaking the opponent's spirit.
Fullback James Develin was outstanding this year, earning plaudits from Tom Brady, who deemed him the best fullback in the league, and Bill Belichick, who raved about his intelligence on the field. He picked up a lot of the slack as the interior of the offensive line wasn't the best in setting up the run. He definitely developed as the season drew on and it would make sense for the Patriots to offer him a multi-year extension.
The rookie White effectively red shirted after every single player and coach heaped praise on him during the preseason. There was a little disconnect, as he didn't really produce during the preseason, but the team remains high on his prospects, due to his maturity and drive to learn.
The Patriots running backs were extremely valuable to the offense and the depth of the committee really pulled through over the course of the season.
2015 Projection: With free agency, it's unknown if Vereen or Ridley will return. Ridley, due to his injury, will likely receive a one-year deal from a club to prove that he's fully healed from a pretty big injury. Vereen will likely receive plenty of offers by teams looking to improve their pass catching out of the backfield; teams like the Saints or Packers would make a lot of sense.
Look for the Patriots to offer both a contract, but not to really fight for either. Similar to Danny Woodhead, look for the front office to send over a reasonable market level deal, but with zero chance for negotiation. There are just too many players under contract for fight for these running backs.
Blount and Gray are both under contract through 2015, so those will likely be the workhorse players for next season. White will be expected to step into Vereen's role out of the gate and, if not, Bolden will assume all of those responsibilities. Develin will continue to be a great blocker for the team.
Gaffney, who the Patriots scooped from the Panthers last year, spent the season on the injured reserve and offers tremendous upside. He will basically be treated as an extra late round pick, with no guarantee of making a roster, but a lot of potential.
A dark horse candidate is Dion Lewis, who is a favorite of Mike Lombardi, an assistant on the Patriots coaching staff and personal friend of Bill Belichick. Lombardi has done an excellent job of evaluating and bringing in talent for the Patriots, so there will be something there when Lewis is in camp. He's basically a clone of Darren Sprols and Danny Woodhead; he just hasn't been able to remain healthy. He can blitz pick-up, he can catch, and he can run. He'll be someone to watch.
Overall, the running back position should be fine, even if some turnover happens. This is a deep unit with a lot of potential.