The New England Patriots have two free agent running backs in LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. There are two other running backs that will be free agents after the 2017 season in James White and Dion Lewis, and two more that spend portions of the 2016 season on the practice squad in D.J. Foster and Tyler Gaffney.
Needless to say, the Patriots running back group could look vastly different in the next two years.
NFL Draft Analyst Mike Mayock has connected the Patriots to Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, and he expanded on his thoughts during a press conference this week.
“I think you have to be smart at how you're looking at utilizing talent,” Mayock explained. “I think the best match-up coach in football is Bill Belichick, and he's been doing that for years. From my perspective, McCaffrey's a match-up guy. He's a chess piece. He averaged -- just like Dalvin Cook and Fournette and Kamara, he averaged between 6 and 6.5 yards a carry. He's an outstanding pass catcher. He's bigger and tougher than people think he is. And he's also a return guy. So you've got to have a plan if you draft him with the first-round pick as to how you want to utilize him, especially based on what you have on your roster already.”
Mayock thinks that McCaffrey can be a three-down running back in the NFL, but acknowledges that not every team will agree. Some teams are “looking for a big, physical guy that can handle the load in the fourth quarter in your four-minute offense and downhill” while others are “looking for a guy that can go out the slot and play.”
McCaffrey might not be a perfect fit in a power rushing attack, but some rushing games thrive by getting their runners in the open field and could capitalize on McCaffrey’s athleticism. Other running backs might be better matches for power rushing teams.
Mayock ranks his running backs: 1) FSU’s Dalvin Cook; 2) LSU’s Leonard Fournette; 3) McCaffrey; 4) Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara; and 5) Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon.
“Fournette is a different conversation than Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, or Alvin Kamara, or throw Mixon in there, because those last four guys are today's NFL,” Mayock said. “They're going to get 20 touches, but it's going to be probably 12 or 13 in the run game; 6, 7 or 8 in pass game. If you draft Fournette, you better give him 25 touches in the run game. So you've got to have a plan.
“And I've got five running backs with first-round grades. I think three are going to go in the first round, because Mixon's character, and I think Kamara's going to have enough questions about why he didn't play more. But I think the other three are going in the first round.”
Cook is an three-down back that makes tacklers miss in space. Fournette is one of the most gifted runners in recent history, but he’s not much as a receiver. Kamara is a former Alabama running back that transferred to Junior College before going to the University of Tennessee, but he hasn’t held down a leading job. Mixon was charged with assault after punching a woman in the head and was suspended for the full 2014 season; he was also suspended for a game in 2016 after an incident with a parking attendant.
Cook and Fournette will both be gone before the Patriots draft 32nd overall, and there’s a very real chance that McCaffrey will also be gone at that point. But even beyond these five players with first round talent, there are plenty of running backs in the draft, including Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, Toldeo’s Kareem Hunt, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman, and Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols.
I originally thought that selecting a player like McCaffrey would be a luxury- and it very much remains a luxury- but adding a third down back is within the MO of the Patriots, as noted by Pulpiteers Middlesex and 16ghostly. While the running back position is plug-and-grind for New England, the third down receiving role is more specialized. Current third down back James White overlapped with Shane Vereen in 2014, while Vereen overlapped with Danny Woodhead in 2011-12, and Woodhead overlapped with Kevin Faulk in 2010-11.
None of those four were first down prospects, which is why McCaffrey is considered a luxury, but McCaffrey could be the plug-and-grind lead back in 2017 before becoming a three-down player moving forward. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots added a player like Hunt or McNichols in the fourth or fifth round.
This all hinges upon whether the Patriots envision D.J. Foster as their overlap player, of course. The Patriots paid Foster an active roster salary while he toiled away on the practice squad, so there is a definite interest. If Foster is expected to take over for Lewis and White in 2018, then the Patriots probably won’t spend a draft pick on a replacement.