The New England Patriots had two free agent running backs heading in to the 2017 season and both remain unsigned. LeGarrette Blount, the 2016 rushing touchdown leader, and Brandon Bolden, a key special teams player, have not generated much interest.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have released RB Tyler Gaffney and have signed former Bengals RB Rex Burkhead to one of the largest running back contracts under head coach Bill Belichick.
To review the running back position on the roster, there is no between-the-tackles bruiser at this point time, unless Burkhead is expected to ascend into that role (which is possible), and the four running backs under contract all have very similar skill sets.
Burkhead, James White, Dion Lewis, and D.J. Foster are all backs that make their bread as a receiver out of the backfield. They run the ball with varying degrees of success and strength, but they share a one-cut slash-and-go approach to the line of scrimmage. White and Lewis have a penchant for forcing missed tackles, while Burkhead steamrolls forward.
But Burkhead, White, and Lewis are all set to be free agents after the 2017 season, which would leave the cupboard uncharacteristically bare moving forward.
So what are the Patriots planning with the position?
There are two fullbacks on the roster in James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski, so the power rushing attack should still be in place for the upcoming year. Is the situation as simple as Burkhead taking over for Blount? Does head coach Bill Belichick view the between-the-tackles role easy enough to learn for one-year rentals at the position?
The Patriots have not had a running back post back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons under Belichick and they haven’t had the same player lead the team in rushing three years in a row since Corey Dillon (2004-06)- and Dillon barely staved off rookie Laurence Maroney in that final year (812 to 745).
Blount joins Dillon and Maroney as the only Patriots running backs with three seasons of 700+ rushing yards under Belichick; no player has accomplished the feat four times. After seeing the contract for Burkhead, it seems unlikely that Blount will repeat his 1,000+ yard season, if he even returns to New England.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Burkhead was the team’s leading back in 2017, or if the Patriots invested a day three draft pick on a bigger running back like Kareem Hunt, Wayne Gallman, Samaje Perine, or D’Onta Foreman.
The Patriots prefer to have four running backs on the roster and Burkhead, Lewis, and White are the only locks. If Blount returns, then Foster likely won’t make the team and the Patriots probably won’t spend a draft pick on more than a practice squad player. But if Blount signs elsewhere, then the Patriots could still be in the market for a running back on a multi-year contract that would likely receive a season in the system before ascending to a larger role in 2018.