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Patriots Free Agency vs Draft: Bruising Running Backs in Short Supply

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The New England Patriots have a great need to revamp their rushing attack. Injuries to their top two backs in Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, as well as a complete collapse in coaching, led to the Patriots fewest rushing attempts in head coach Bill Belichick's tenure, as well as the second fewest rushing yards.

The team lost their dangerous duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to free agency prior to the 2015 season and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots dip back into the drafting well to replenish the position moving forward.

New England finished the 2015 season with Steven Jackson, Brandon Bolden, and James White as the running backs. The 32-year-old Jackson is a free agent and was a last minute signing to fill the void left with Blount's season-ending injury. Blount is also a free agent.

Bolden is under contract through the upcoming 2016 season, while White and Lewis are under contract through the 2017 year. The Patriots typically carry four running backs on the roster, when available.

Lewis and White are traditionally the receiving backs, with Lewis providing additional value as a rusher. Bolden is truly a special teamer that functions as an emergency back-up. New England needs a running back that can grind between the tackles for 15+ carries on any given day. While Blount filled that role, he was generally lackluster in 2015 and is no guarantee to return.

If the Patriots want to bring in a running back in free agency, then there are really only two that make sense: Jets running back Chris Ivory and Washington running back Alfred Morris. Most of the other running backs are more speed-oriented or are players that the Patriots have had multiple opportunities to sign over the years, but declined.

Belichick has professed his love for Ivory in the past and the fact that Ivory still hasn't reached 1,000 touches at the NFL level is also a major bonus.

"Chris is a great back," Belichick said prior to facing the Jets this season. "He's got good vision, good power, good speed, and he catches the ball well, so he can really do it all - tough guy to stop."

Belichick credits Morris' production to the coaching scheme, pointing out the positives in the Washington coaching staff prior to this season's game, instead of launching his textbook praise for the opposing players. Morris has seen a decline in rushing yards and yards per carry in each of his four seasons in the league.

If the Patriots aren't willing to throw free agent money at the to-be 28-year-old Ivory, then bringing back Blount could make the most sense with regards to free agent acquisitions.

Of course, "throwing money" is all relative to the position. New England could make Ivory a top 10 paid running back with a Danny Amendola- or Marcus Cannon-level contract in the mid-$4 million range. Former running back Shane Vereen is a top 10 paid running back with a mere $4.1 million per season deal.

If the Patriots can't reach a deal with Ivory, or they feel like Blount isn't the solution, they should look to the draft to find a plethora of potential options. While top round picks like Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott or Alabama's Derrick Henry won't be available, there are a handful of other 220+ lbs backs that could fill a similar role (draft projections per CBS).

Arkansas has two in Alex Collins (2nd round) or Jonathan Williams (3rd/4th). Indiana's Jordan Howard (2nd/3rd), Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise (3rd/4th), and Western Kentucky's Leon Allen (5th) could all fit as well. The Patriots could address the position without breaking the bank, and still manage to pick-up a top tier offensive tackle.

Williams, Howard, Prosise, and Allen are coming off of injuries, which has affected their stock, but New England has never shied away from taking advantage of potential value- but the injuries show why the Patriots are so averse to investing a large chunk of the salary cap into the position.

Collins is clearly the pick of the litter, but Prosise is a former special teams stand out and former safety/wide receiver convert that stood out in his first season as a running back. He makes plenty of sense due to his upside, but there is a definite question of whether he can be the bellcow.

Personally, I think the best running backs in the draft are the ones that won't fill the need for New England. Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon is my favorite non-Elliott back, and he's basically another Dion Lewis. Texas Tech's DeAndre Washington is a late round option that plays a similar, but smaller, game to Dixon. There are very few certainties at the position in the draft.

And that's why Blount might ultimately be the best option. He is a player that the Patriots know very well, and he'll be available for an extremely affordable price when compared to Ivory. At the end of the day, New England probably isn't looking for a player like Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. They just want someone who can grind out carries as a part of a rotation- and that is exactly what Blount provides.