Earlier today, I made the claim that RB LeGarrette Blount would “cast his name for consideration into the third tier of all time Patriots running backs” if he kept up his current pace for the rest of the season.
I’m going to be honest, I kind of pulled “third tier” out of thin air.
I place Jim Nance and Sam Cunningham and Kevin Faulk in the top tier of running backs, while the shorter Curtis Martin and Corey Dillon eras went in the second tier.
The third tier is for Antowain Smith, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the like- players that contributed for a reasonable span of time, produced pretty good numbers, but weren’t really game changing talents.
That’s where I was going to place Blount because, remember, he only has 36 games in a Patriots uniform. He’s really just entering his third season of games for New England- his story is just starting.
But these tiers are and were completely arbitrary, so I decided to do some digging to come up with some actual rankings, and to find that Blount isn’t actually closing in on the third tier at all.
Tier V - Welcome to the team
Leonard Russell (1991-93): 2,787 yards from scrimmage (YFS), 13 total touchdowns
LeGarrette Blount (2013-): 2,153 YFS, 21 TDs
These two players have shone brightly, but they haven’t been around long enough to really make a serious dent in the franchise record books. Blount will likely move to Tier IV after this season.
Tier IV - Four-year workhorse
Antowain Smith (2001-03): 3,308 YFS, 24 TDs
Mosi Tatupu (1978-90): 3,258 YFS, 20 TDs
Carl Garrett (1969-72): 3,393 YFS, 18 TDs
Stevan Ridley (2011-14): 2,963 YFS, 22 TDs
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2008-11): 2,357 YFS, 29 TDs
Laurence Maroney (2006-09): 2,839 YFS, 22 TDs
Craig James (1984-88): 3,288 YFS, 13 TDs
In general, most of these players are around 3,000 YFS and 20 TDs with 45-55 games played (Tatupu’s 194 games the lone exception). BJGE gets a boost from his high number of touchdowns, James takes a fall because of his low count. Blount is almost certainly going to reach this grouping at some point this year.
It’s also interesting to see how the Bill Belichick era is pretty represented here as Smith, Maroney, BJGE, and Ridley are all represented and Blount will soon be here. Corey Dillon is the only real gap in the timeline and we’ll get to him shortly.
Tier III - Long time back-ups
Don Calhoun (1975-81): 4,005 YFS, 25 TDs
Andy Johnson (1974-82): 3,824 YFS, 22 TDs
John Stephens (1988-92): 4,030 YFS, 18 TDs
Calhoun and Johnson both backed up Sam Cunningham for his entire career, so they were often relegated to change-of-pace, or receiving back. Calhoun ranks 6th in Patriots history with 820 carries, while Johnson tacked on 1,807 receiving yards.
Stephens could have joined Tier II since he led the Patriots in YFS during his tenure, but he just missed the cut thanks to his extremely low number of touchdowns.
Tier II - Short term supernovae
Curtis Martin (1995-97): 4,689 YFS, 37 TDs
Corey Dillon (2004-06): 3,611 YFS, 39 TDs
Martin and Dillon rank 1st and 3rd in touches per game of the 62 players with 200+ touches in Patriots franchise history (Robert Edwards ranks 2nd). These backs picked up roughly the same number of yards from scrimmage as Tier III, but they did it in half the number of games and with twice as many touchdowns.
Tier I - Career Patriots running backs
Sam Cunningham (1973-82): 7,358 YFS, 49 TDs
Tony Collins (1981-87): 7,003 YFS, 44 TDs
Jim Nance (1965-71): 6,167 YFS, 46 TDs
Kevin Faulk (1999-2011): 7,308 YFS, 31 TDs
Larry Garron (1960: 1968): 5,483 YFS, 40 TDs
Nance played the fewest games of the group (94) while Faulk played the most (161), but there’s no question that these are the premier backs in Patriots franchise history.
In fact, the Patriots basically went from Garron to Nance to Cunningham to Collins over a span of 30 years (and then to the short stints of Stephens to Martin to the Belichick era).
I don’t know if we’ll ever see a Tier I back in the Belichick era just because of how the position is valued. Perhaps Dion Lewis can recover from his ACL injury and be the Patriots back for the next six or seven years.
I do think that next year offers a unique opportunity in the draft, with seven or eight legitimate workhorse running backs currently receiving 1st or 2nd round grades, per NDS scouting services. I wouldn’t be shocked if any of them fell to the third or even fourth round due to weak market demands, where the Patriots will gladly draft them.
But it’s possible that the era of multi-contract rushers for the Patriots are a thing of the past.