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Patriots placing low-risk bet on past production when it comes to Jeremy Hill and the end zone

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Two running backs amassed 29 rushing touchdowns between 2014 and 2016. One was Jeremy Hill.

Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There are currently five running backs on the New England Patriots’ roster.

None have rushed for more touchdowns than the one who wasn’t on it until Friday.

Jeremy Hill got into the end zone exactly zero times in 2017, finishing his final regular season as a Cincinnati Bengal with 37 carries for 116 yards, one fumble, and seven games played before being placed on injured reserve in November to undergo ankle surgery. But over the LSU product’s first three seasons in the NFL, only one back managed to score as many rushing touchdowns as he did: LeGarrette Blount.

Both amassed 29 from 2014 through 2016, in 47 and 44 appearances, respectively.

It would be ambitious to say that Hill will go on to become a Blount-like reclamation story for New England. The 25-year-old has been held under 3.9 yards per attempt in each of the last three campaigns after posting a 5.1 mark as a 1,124-yard rookie second-round pick. He averaged north of 220 carries per campaign before 2017 hit, and his longest run that followed gained 13 and only two more eclipsed single digits.

Hill no longer finds himself sharing snaps with Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard entering 2018. But the former Bengals starter will soon find himself competing for them with a familiar face in Rex Burkhead, as well as James White, Brandon Bolden, Mike Gillislee, and quite potentially an April draft choice.

And he will do so on a one-year, $1.5 million deal that's lone guarantee is its $150,000 signing bonus, according to NFL Media's Tom Pelissero.

It will take something to separate him.

Speed and lateral agility are not elements that will. Hill is, as NESN.com’s Doug Kyed outlined, not the Patriots’ athletic archetype for the position. But there are straight-forward elements to Hill’s game that could lighten what he isn’t.

And they’ve seen him log just three fewer rushing touchdowns in his career than the rest of New England’s present backfield has combined.

CAREER RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS IN PATRIOTS’ BACKFIELD

  • Jeremy Hill: 29 through 704 carries, 54 games
  • Mike Gillislee: 16 through 258 carries, 32 games
  • Rex Burkhead: 8 through 151 carries, 52 games
  • Brandon Bolden: 6 through 216 carries, 83 games
  • James White: 2 through 113 carries, 47 games

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Hill is the biggest back on a depth chart now devoid of 5-foot-9, 195-pound electrifyer Dion Lewis. And for the most part, Hill is also the most what-you-see-is-what-you-get of the handful.

“Kind of the more downhill, power running back,” former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said of Hill on an October 2016 conference call, via Patriots.com. “Strong, explosive, likes contact. Will get into the line of scrimmage, get the tough yards. Does a good job of running with his pads low. Just a downhill, really just a tough, physical type of running style and he’s got really good balance, which means he can also push the ball out into the edge.”

That running style was often up close and personal during Hill’s first three seasons in Cincinnati.

Seldom was it pretty. Down on the goal line, it didn’t necessarily need to be to prove effective.

Seventeen of Hill’s 29 ground touchdowns from 2014 through 2016 transpired between one to three yards of the end zone, per the Pro Football Reference database.

Twenty-one of his 29 came between one to four yards of it.

And that includes those occasions where he was able to “push the ball out into the edge” six yards backward to get three yards forward.

HILL’S RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS BY DISTANCE

  • One yard out: 9
  • Two to three yards out: 8
  • Four to five yards out: 4
  • Six to nine yards out: 2
  • 10 to 19 yards out: 2
  • 20 to 29 yards out: 0
  • 30 to 39 yards out: 1
  • 40 to 85 yards out: 3

Now there were outliers in that sample size, like the 60- and 85-yard TD runs Hill broke free for during his first season, or the 38-yarder he broke for six during his second, or the 74-yarder he had during his third.

But runs of great lengths weren’t why the Patriots extended Hill a one-year offer during his free-agent visit to Gillette Stadium last week.

And if the second-wave signing makes his case, the reason will be clearest when the distances are the shortest.

Based on past production, that’s a low-risk bet worth placing if you're New England. Time will tell whether Hill is able to cover it.