The second camp battle covered receiving backs, this one covers who will be running inside the tackles. While the Patriots can ride the arm of Tom Brady to a lot of victories, they still need to be able to grind out yards inside the tackles against less than elite defenses. The Patriots were able to defeat the Ravens and the Seahawks with the lack of an inside running game, but that kind of offense is unsustainable and requires Tom Brady to be at his best for the offense to put up points. The running game comes down to two main parts: the offensive line creating running lanes and the running back being able to identify and run through those holes to maximize the yards you get. The Patriots lost Stevan Ridley in the offseason and while we criticize his perceived fumble issues (perhaps because he was unlucky in the other team recovering them), he was a solid runner and did well at maximizing gains. We'll see if his replacements can do the same.
Contestants: LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney
Blount is the incumbent starter for the team. He's a big back (6'0" 250) who is also very nimble, a skill set that Bill Belichick typically likes for his inside runners. Back-to-back seasons he sent the Colts home crying with a combined 304 yards and 6 TDs. Blount is one of the best RBs at picking up yards after contact, whose 2.55 yards gained after contact ranks among the best RBs in the game today. Behind him as Jonas Gray and Tyler Gaffney, both of whom are more than talented enough to win a roster spot. The question comes down to who outperforms the other. Gray had a great preseason and worked hard for his chance, which led to a 200 yard and 4 TD performance against the Colts in Week 11 of the 2014 season. His 2014 season basically ended there (being tardy for the next practice and the Steelers releasing Blount basically put him in the doghouse for the rest of the season), although he did appear in the division-clinching matchup against the Dolphins where he was able to pick up yards to move the chains when the team needed him to.
Gray's running style is different than Blount's. Blount will stay in the backfield and stretch it out until a lane opens up. Gray runs where the play is designed to run and if there's no lane, then the OL didn't do its job. Gray attacks the hole with conviction and his bowling ball frame (5'10" 235) enables him to plow through defenders and tough to tackle. We'll see how Gray handles the punishment Belichick gave him at the end of the 2014 season. Will he come back with a vengeance or will it be the starting point for how he blew an opportunity to be the lead back for the Patriots? My guess is the former because he's already overcome a lot to even get to where he is today.
Tyler Gaffney is a wild card in this entire camp battle. I was a Gaffney fan coming out of Stanford (he's a terrible baseball player, but a solid RB) because of his size (6'1" 225) and running style. He also shows solid receiving ability out of the back field in case the Patriots want to throw another wrinkle at opposing defenses. He's not going to be doing some of the stuff that the receiving backs will do, but more as a check down or outlet receiver in case the other options are covered. The Patriots liked him enough to claim him in camp and stash on Injured Reserve for 2014. We'll see if Gaffney rewards the Patriots for taking a chance on him.
Projected Winners: LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray
This is a tough choice, but I'm leaning towards Jonas Gray over Tyler Gaffney for now. That could change when camp opens up and injuries remove the decision making process. If the Patriots feel like they can't afford to lose one of those guys (RBs are a dime a dozen), they will keep him on the roster. It's a bit difficult to side with Gaffney because there's no tape to evaluate with. If Gaffney is cut from the roster, I believe he will catch on somewhere else and perform well. The Patriots typically keep two inside the tackle runners and two receiving options on the table to account for minor injuries (i.e. 1-4 week injuries). This is the one camp battle I feel that there isn't a wrong answer.