clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

17 Years of Patriots: Analyzing running backs under Bill Belichick

New, comments

Bell cows, split backs, H-backs, and more!

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

This is part two of my multipart series. Quarterbacks are here. And yes, my math was wrong in the first article. I am not a math person. I regret the error.

But anyway...onto running backs!

RUNNING BACK

Unlike the quarterback position, there has been a great deal of changeover in the New England backfield over the years. Belichick has four main roles that he needs backfield players to fulfill in New England - power run, pass protect in spread and two minute drills, split out and catch screens as a receiver, and serve as a lead blocker or split back in I-sets. The Patriots cobble together a cadre of players every season that can fulfill all of these basic requirements, although some years there is more stratification than in others. At the start of 2015, for instance, Brandon Bolden was the incumbent 2-minute and draw back, while Dion Lewis and James White both serving as split backs and LeGarrette Blount toting the rock for a majority of the year. This evolved over time, with Bolden being passed by Lewis and injuries robbing New England of their depth. One thing is for sure though - the Patriots have yet to win a Super Bowl without having above average options at every running back role. While the team is known for playing “Belitricks” in terms of fantasy options at running back, this is not a position that should be devalued.

Bills v Patriots Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

LEAD BACK

2000 JR Redmond

2001 Antowain Smith

2002 Antowain Smith

2003 Antowain Smith

2004 Corey Dillon

2005 Corey Dillon

2006 Corey Dillon/Laurence Maroney

2007 Laurence Maroney

2008 Sammy Morris

2009 Laurence Maroney

2010 BenJarvus Green-Ellis

2011 BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Stevan Ridley

2012 Stevan Ridley

2013 Stevan Ridley/LeGarrette Blount

2014 Stevan Ridley/LeGarrette Blount/Jonas Gray

2015 LeGarrette Blount/Steven Jackson

2016 LeGarrette Blount

SUMMARY: Over the years, as the league has evolved to something more spread-oriented, the Patriots have consistently sought to field a more powerful player in their backfield for short yardage and mismatch situations. New England has also not been averse to spending a substantial amount of funds to shore this spot up, even using a 1st round draft pick in 2006 on Laurence Maroney. LeGarrette Blount has a unique combination of balance and vision and has held down the fort for the past couple of seasons. However, he is a free agent this year, and at 30 years old he may want to see if he can get one final payday in the NFL. Should Blount leave, do not be surprised if the Patriots spend a Day 2 pick on a lead back - this position is crucial late in the season and they do not have a readily available option on the roster.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

DRAW BACK/PASS PROTECTION BACK

2000 Kevin Faulk/JR Redmond

2001 Kevin Faulk

2002 Kevin Faulk

2003 Kevin Faulk

2004 Kevin Faulk

2005 Kevin Faulk

2006 Kevin Faulk

2007 Kevin Faulk

2008 Kevin Faulk

2009 Kevin Faulk

2010 Danny Woodhead

2011 Danny Woodhead

2012 Danny Woodhead/Brandon Bolden

2013 Shane Vereen/Brandon Bolden

2014 Shane Vereen/Brandon Bolden

2015 Dion Lewis/Brandon Bolden

2016 Dion Lewis/James White

SPLIT BACK

2000 Kevin Faulk/JR Redmond

2001 Kevin Faulk

2002 Kevin Faulk

2003 Kevin Faulk

2004 Kevin Faulk

2005 Kevin Faulk

2006 Kevin Faulk

2007 Kevin Faulk

2008 Kevin Faulk

2009 Kevin Faulk

2010 Danny Woodhead

2011 Danny Woodhead

2012 Shane Vereen

2013 Shane Vereen

2014 Shane Vereen

2015 Dion Lewis/James White

2016 Dion Lewis/James White

SUMMARY: Kevin Faulk made these positions famous, and Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis, and James White have all followed in his footsteps admirably. Coming into 2015, Bolden was the man who had Brady’s trust as a pass protector, limiting the amount of snaps White and Lewis could earn on the field. However, Lewis and White improved over the course of the past two years, and now both are equally adept in these facets. Lewis, to me, looked like he lost a step post-injury. White, however, has a year remaining on his contract and appears to be capable of filling both of these roles in the near future. It would not shock me if Lewis is a surprise cut this offseason. When White leaves, also, the Patriots have a ready-made replacement in DJ Foster should they choose to keep him around. The Arizona State rookie has wide receiver experience and looked electrifying in practices.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FULLBACK

2000 Tony Carter/Patrick Pass

2001 Marc Edwards

2002 Marc Edwards

2003 Larry Centers

2004 Patrick Pass

2005 Patrick Pass

2006 Heath Evans

2007 Heath Evans/Kyle Eckel

2008 Heath Evans

2009 None

2010 None

2011 None

2012 None

2013 James Develin

2014 James Develin

2015 None

2016 James Develin

H-BACK/FLEX TIGHT END

2000 Jermaine Wiggins

2001 Jermaine Wiggins

2002 Marc Edwards

2003 Larry Centers

2004 Patrick Pass

2005 Patrick Pass

2006 David Thomas

2007 None

2008 David Thomas

2009 None

2010 Aaron Hernandez

2011 Aaron Hernandez

2012 Aaron Hernandez

2013 Michael Hoomonawanui

2014 Tim Wright

2015 None

2016 Martellus Bennett

SUMMARY: Fullback and H-back have a bit of a discordant relationship when it comes to the Patriots. The Patriots tend to have more dominant fullbacks when H-back is a need and vice versa. 2009 is a strange outlier, albeit arguably that was also the Patriots’ least talented team since 2000 after essentially striking out on three consecutive drafts. Additionally, the role of the New England H-back evolved over the years, with stockier fullback types filling the spot until ex-Texas Longhorn David Thomas was drafted in 2006. This coincides with rule changes that limited defender physicality, allowing for seam tight ends to find more defensive mismatches. Belichick adapted and the Patriots have had success at this position ever since.

James Develin and Martellus Bennett filled these roles at times this year, but both are free agents. While Develin is likely to return, Bennett may not, and even if he does he is more of a traditional tight end than a seam threat a la Thomas or Aaron Hernandez. This is definitely a position New England could look to upgrade this offseason.

Pittsburgh v Clemson Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

PROSPECT FITS: The Patriots could look to fill lead back, fullback, and H-back/flex TE roles during this draft process, and it would not be shocking if they snag these players as early as Round 2. New England has shown a willingness to take risks on backfield position players they like, and this is a very deep draft at all of these positions.

The lead back role has gone through many iterations since 2006. The baton was passed from Laurence Maroney, an indecisive yet explosive runner, to Benjarvus Green-Ellis, a reliable player who was slow as a snail. Stevan Ridley had quick feet but fumbled too often, while LeGarrette Blount got stopped for loss more than most big backs but also showcased top notch patience over his Patriots career. Based on past history, the Patriots will look for a back over 220 pounds with quick feet and reliable hands. In this draft class, that screams James Conner from Pittsburgh, a cancer survivor who came back from chemotherapy to rack up 16 touchdowns and 1,060 yards in 2016. Conner can be had at a discount due to his diagnosis, and he would not be the first Patriot that the team could pick up later than expected due to cancer - Marcus Cannon had second-round grades in 2011 and slipped to Round 5 because of his ailment. Conner should be available in Round 3 or Day 3. D’onta Foreman and Samaje Perine both fit New England’s mold, but they may be a bit too pricy for the Patriots. Two sleepers to keep an eye on are De’Veon Smith of Michigan and Kody Walker of Arkansas. Smith has some versatility in the passing game and Walker shows flashes of Blount’s vision. From a bigger back, that’s rare, and makes Walker an intriguing candidate even though he is coming off an injury.

In terms of H-Backs, Evan Engram of Ole Miss is the closest player I’ve seen to Aaron Hernandez since 2010, and if the Patriots selected him with their Round 1 pick I would not be opposed. He is amazingly fluid, has great hands, and looks like a wide receiver. He is also a better blocker than people expect. Utilizing Engram as an H-back and flex tight end would make the New England offensive even scarier than they are already. FIU’s Jonnu Smith is probably best known for his girlfriend pouring boiling water on him this year, but he can block in space and is another versatile weapon who would be able to make an impact in Foxboro. If they want to go a bit bigger, Michael Roberts of Toledo is one of the most well-rounded players in this class and can line up at H-back. Jeremy Sprinkle of Arkansas stole from Belk once but he also has a lot of formational versatility. The Patriots could look past his indiscretion and pick him in the mid rounds.

For fullbacks, if New England decides to convert a rookie free agent defensive player, keep an eye on Ball State’s Josh Posley. His defensive end tape was great and at 6 foot 1, 255 pounds, he has the burst and strength to be an intriguing anchor in the Patriots’ backfield.