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Sunday NFL Thoughts: LeGarrette Blount is the 2nd most cost-effective RB in the NFL

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Rich Hill analyzes the Patriots running back situation moving forward, including some draft prospects.

1. The New England Patriots sent scouts to watch the University of Pittsburgh for the second straight week, per NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread. Pittsburgh lost to the University of Miami 51-28. No prospect really stood out as Pittsburgh RB James Conner, a 6’2, 240-pound battering ram, collected a mere 40 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and was outshone by sophomore Miami RB Mark Walton and his 149 yards and a touchdown on 17 touches.

Miami held a two score lead for much of the second half, which limited Conner’s touches. Conner is firmly on the Patriots radar at running back as New England wants to add a younger 220+ pound rusher to the roster in the midrounds of next year’s draft.

2. The Patriots have to be happy with the production of RB LeGarrette Blount, the current hammerback on the team. The 6’0, 250-pound 29-year-old ranks 6th in the NFL with 609 rushing yards and he has delivered whenever the Patriots needed him in the 4th quarter. He currently ranks 13th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage by a running back.

Remember that Blount was on the bubble early in the offseason after the team gave RB Donald Brown more guaranteed money in free agency. He’s been the 2nd most cost-effective running back on a veteran contract in the NFL with 640 yards per $1 million spent, behind only Seahawks RB Christine Michael (742.1 yards/mm). Blount is producing at a similar value to running backs on their rookie deal or on a restricted free agent contract (first three years in the NFL).

For reference, RB James White ranks 19th in cost-effectiveness with 557.9 yards/mm, one spot behind Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell and one spot ahead of 49ers RB Carlos Hyde. All three are on their rookie deals.

This is how head coach Bill Belichick maximizes roster value.

3. If Belichick wants to add a younger running back in next year’s draft, there is a large number of big, dense running backs that can run and catch that will be available in the middle rounds. By “dense” I mean running backs that weigh a lot for their height- like a 220-pounder at 5’9, versus a standard 190-pound rusher at the same height.

The below names are of select players with 1,000+ yards rushing over the past two seasons and 20+ receptions and with a completely arbitrary weight:height (inches) density ratio of 3 or greater.

First and second round talent includes LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6’1, 230 pounds), Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (5’11, 215 pounds), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (5’11, 230 pounds), and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (5’10, 235 pounds); this does not include the likes of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (size), Georgia’s Nick Chubb (doesn’t catch), or Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (size).

Third, fourth, and fifth round talent includes Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (5’9, 210 pounds), North Carolina’s Elijah Hood (6’0, 220 pounds), Toledo’s Kareem Hunt (6’0, 225 pounds), Wyoming’s Brian Hill (6’1, 220 pounds), and Michigan’s De’Veon Smith (5’11, 230 pounds).

Then there are some potential late rounders or players that could go back to school- in Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin (6’0, 230 pounds), Arizona State’s Demario Richard (5’10, 220 pounds), Northern Illinois’ Joel Bouagnon (6’2, 230 pounds), and Georgia’s Sony Michel (5’11, 220 pounds).

An average of 6 running backs have been selected in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. In other words, there are a large number of potential running back prospects that could be available in the middle rounds to replace or upgrade over Blount should the veteran show any decline or want an increased salary in 2017.

4. That said, Blount clearly loves playing in New England. He’s a great fit for the Patriots coaching staff. He and James White have formed an excellent duo, meaning that the Patriots don’t have to take a running back in 2017. They could ride with the 30-year-old Blount and a contract-year White next season and wait until the 2018 draft when there will be plenty of options.

The return of Dion Lewis changes the calculations as well. Can he recapture his magic from the first half of 2015? If so, then running back shouldn’t be a priority since Lewis, Blount, and White would be a perfectly good backfield and the draft resources might be better invested elsewhere...

5. ...like on the offensive line! New England has invested on the interior line over the past three years, adding C Bryan Stork in 2014, OGs Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason in 2015, and OG Joe Thuney in 2016. The biggest surprise might have been 2015 UDFA David Andrews winning the center job outright over Stork this summer.

Andrews ranks 33rd of 35 in Pro Football Focus’ offensive line grades this year. He might get the line call correctly, but he is consistently overpowered by big nose tackles and it’s reasonable to wonder if the 6’2, 295 pound Andrews will ever be strong enough in the middle.

And that’s kind of been the weakness for the Patriots interior line 2016: their strength. While Thuney usually has the technique to recover after defensive linemen blow him into the backfield, he can get dominated at the point of attack:

And Mason is still learning how to pass block; his height might prevent him from ever matching up well against the longer reaches of defensive tackles.

I think offensive lines can overcome one undersized player because the nature of a 4-man pass rush allows one of the offensive linemen to play a support role, but having two smaller lineman and three that have a tendency to lose the point of attack multiple times per game is a vulnerability.

I expect Thuney to continue to grow his strength into his frame. Perhaps the Patriots should consider adding bigger prospects to one- or both- of the other two offensive line positions.