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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Brandon Bolden scheduled for more cash in 2017 than James White

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The running back market is seriously depressed.

1. ESPN’s Mike Reiss has the contract details for New England Patriots RB Brandon Bolden. It is a 1-year, $775,000 contract with a $50,000 signing bonus and a $30,000 workout bonus. It’s a minimum-contract deal without much guaranteed money; Bolden previously played under a 2-year deal, $2.32 million deal, so he’s going to earn less money in 2017 than he did in 2015 and 2016, reflecting that Bolden is firmly on the fringe of the roster.

Bolden is a good special teams player with extreme depth value backing up both the running back and receiving back roles.

Bolden’s money in 2017 is the third-most for running backs on the roster, behind only RB Rex Burkhead ($3.15 million) and RB Dion Lewis ($1.4 million). Bolden actually ranks ahead of James White in 2017 money, since White’s base salary is $690,000. When you factor in White’s prorated signing bonus, he barely slips ahead of Bolden at $789,272.

Bolden is of course ahead of RB D.J. Foster, who is scheduled to earn $540,000 in 2017.

2. Bolden’s return means there are just three Patriots unrestricted free agents still on the street: TE Greg Scruggs, who is coming off a knee injury; WR Michael Floyd, who went to jail for 24 days this offseason for an “extreme DUI”; and RB LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2016.

One of these things is not like the others.

Of course, the Patriots are interested in Blount’s return for 2017, but they don’t want to hand out a big contract. CSNNE’s Mike Giardi reports that the Patriots have “an offer on the table for Blount,” but ESPN’s Mike Reiss adds that “guaranteed money is the holdup.”

There hasn’t been much reported interest in Blount by teams around the league this offseason, despite the Patriots initial concerns that they wouldn’t be able to retain his services.

Blount is not a threat as a receiver and he isn’t a consistent blocker. His 2016 short-yardage (<2 yards) conversion rate of 63% ranks 35th out of 60 running backs with 10+ attempts. His 2016 average first down yardage of 3.74 yards per carry ranks 32nd of 47 running backs with 50+ attempts. Blount’s success rate ranked 28th and his DVOA ranked 18th out of 42 running backs, by Football Outsiders.

I would expect that the Patriots are offering Blount another high-incentive contract with the expectation that Burkhead will be the leading back, and that Blount won’t be able to match his 2016 production moving forward. Blount, for his part, would want more guaranteed money for his financial security.

3. I also have a hard time seeing the Patriots signing Blount to a multi-year pact. Of the players under contract, Foster is the only player currently scheduled to be with the Patriots beyond 2017, as White, Lewis, Burkhead, and Bolden will all be free agents.

This is a sign of how the Patriots view the position as fungible, and because the team believes that certain roles- like Blount in the powerback- can be easily replaced.

While Burkhead’s contract structure seems like a one-year rental that he’ll leverage into a big-money deal from a team like the 49ers or Browns, I do wonder if the team wants to retain White or Lewis moving forward.

Lewis is the better player if he can regain his 2015 form. White is extremely durable and just as good of a receiver, but he lacks Lewis’ ability to run the ball. Of course, White broke out in Super Bowl LI, so perhaps his rushing ability will take a step forward in 2017.

4. Running back isn’t the only position that will need to be replenished in 2018. The Patriots are expected to draft an edge rusher and a developmental offensive tackle in this upcoming draft because Rob Ninkovich, Kony Ealy, Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle will all be free agents after this 2017 season.

While running backs are interchangeable, the edge rusher and offensive tackle positions usually require a season or two in the Patriots system to learn the role correctly.

5. The Patriots are in a position to go through the 2017 season and head into 2018 without any real needs. The Patriots could extend White or Lewis to close the hole at running back. If the Patriots extend Solder, which they should because he’s a very solid offensive tackle, then there is no immediate need at the position. If the Patriots pick up the fifth-year option of WR Brandin Cooks, then there is no need at wide receiver, even if Julian Edelman departs (which is probably unlikely).

The only real hole in the starting unit moving forward is at edge rusher and the Patriots can address that in the upcoming draft. Every other position is set, and any additional player would be to upgrade a competent starter.

6. The rest of the league must feel like former Pittsburgh Steelers S Ryan Clark: