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Should we consider Patriots RB Donald Brown more of a lock than LeGarrette Blount?

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An interesting look at the contracts that paint a unique narrative.

When the New England Patriots re-signed running back LeGarrette Blount, I considered the positional group figured out. Dion Lewis is the lead back, Blount is the grinder and 4th quarter bruiser, Brandon Bolden is the special teamer, and then the best runner of James White, Donald Brown, and D.J. Foster would take the final roster spot.

Perhaps I’m wrong.

Friend of the site and FootballGuys.com head honcho Sigmund Bloom posed an interesting question on Twitter that deserves some discussion:

And this is a super interesting point.

Blount signed a 1-year, $1 million contract with $100,000 guaranteed at signing. He will earn $40,000 as a workout bonus this offseason and an additional $75,000 if he makes the final roster, bringing up his pre-week 1 cash to $215,000.

That’s still shy of the guaranteed money for Donald Brown.

Brown received an $50,000 signing bonus and an additional $250,000 in guaranteed base salary and $30,000 as a workout bonus for a total of $330,000. That’s some serious change and there’s some reason to believe that Brown could make the final roster.

I recruited Pro Football Focus’ Pat Thorman (follow him on Twitter here) to give some extra insight on Brown’s performance with the Chargers in 2015.

According to Thorman, Brown earned the 3rd highest per-snap grade of the 68 qualifying running backs in the NFL, well ahead of his teammates Danny Woodhead (49th) and Melvin Gordon (61st).

The Chargers offensive line was so bad that Brown averaged a mere 1.05 yards before contact, which ranked 61st out of the 68 running backs. He “led Chargers backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.8 YAC), yards after catch per reception (13.8 YAC/R), yards per reception (11.0 YPR), and was only one to grade positively for blocking (barely; +0.4).”

Perhaps there’s some gas left in the tank for Brown. Remember that Brown finished 2nd in the NFL in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric in 2013, which evaluates how efficiently a player converts his touches into production, so the talent is there. It just vanished behind an awful Chargers offensive line.

Brown continued to produce in San Diego while on special teams, which leads me to ask another question:

Is it possible that Brown could take the roster spot of Brandon Bolden?

Bolden is a core 4 special teams player and offers value as a back-up for both Lewis and Blount. Unfortunately, Bolden is not a strong contributor on the offensive side of the ball. If Brown can play well enough on special teams, then his offensive advantage over Bolden could be enough to shift the scale.

And since we compared contracts between Brown and Blount, we should throw Bolden into the mix.

Bolden is in the final year of his 2-year deal that he signed in January 2015. The Patriots gave him $300,000 guaranteed on signing and an extra $25,000 in annual workout bonuses, but perhaps the most important factor is the roster bonus.

Bolden has the highest cap hit of all running backs on the roster at $1,272,500 (roughly double the cap hit of Brown at $680,000) because of his “Likely To Be Earned” roster bonus of $22,500 per game. That adds up to $337,500 in cap space and can increase to $360,000.

Now it’s not the same bullet guarantee that Brown or Blount received, but it’s still money that counts against the cap if Bolden remains on the roster. Cutting Bolden would free up roughly $1.12 million in cap space this season, which could then be used on any of the high profile pending free agents like linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, edge defender Jabaal Sheard, or cornerback Malcolm Butler.

In my opinion, the Brown-for-Bolden exchange makes a lot of sense. Brown can serve as both a back-up for Blount and for Lewis, just like Bolden can, but Brown does it at a far high level. Brown can play on special teams, just like Bolden, and for as much as head coach Bill Belichick loves Bolden and special teams, it would be a total-Belichick move to keep a player (that is arguably an upgrade) that costs half the price of the incumbent.