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Jeremy Hill must recapture the magic of his rookie season

The Patriots will give him the ball. He needs to run with it.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots were not as efficient at scoring inside the 10-yard line in 2017 as they had been in previous years.

After scoring a touchdown on 74.4% of drives inside the 10-yard line in 2014, 78.9% in 2015, and 74.4% in 2016- ranking 5th in the NFL over this three-year span-, the Patriots scored a touchdown on just 66.7% of these drives in 2017, ranking 21st in the NFL.

The Patriots missed having LeGarrette Blount by the goal line as his replacement, Mike Gillislee, was a healthy scratch by the end of the season. To address this need for improvement, the Patriots added 6’1, 230-pound running back Jeremy Hill on a 1-year, $1.5 million “prove-it” deal.

From 2014-16, Hill tied with Blount with 29 rushing touchdowns, the most in the NFL over that span, and his 3,225 yards from scrimmage ranked 9th in the league. Hill’s 69 carries inside the 10-yard line trailed only Blount (75) and DeMarco Murray (74) and his touchdown rate on these carries (33.3%) is tied with Blount, Marshawn Lynch, Todd Gurley, and Jamaal Charles for the 10th-best in the league.

An ankle injury unfortunately derailed Hill’s 2017 season.

“He was productive, especially his first two years,” Belichick said about Hill at the NFL’s Annual Meeting. “This past year, not so much, and he had that ankle injury. A good kid, smart, he’s been productive.”

Hill suffered an ankle injury in the third week of the preseason and was placed on the injured reserve after just seven games for an ankle injury. He also closed out the 2016 season with a knee injury.

The former Bengals second-round pick racked up an impressive 1,339 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2014, leading the entire team in both yards and touchdowns and splitting time evenly with third-down receiving back Giovani Bernard.

The Bengals started to give Bernard more time on the field in 2015 and Hill’s yards dropped to 873 yard, but he still managed to score 12 times.

Hill once again led the team in yards and touchdowns in 2016 as Bernard battled injuries, gaining 1,013 yards from scrimmage and scoring 9 times. Wide receiver A.J. Green missed six games with an injury, which led to a reduction in efficiency by the Bengals offense.

In fact, Hill’s production dropped from 63.3 yards per game and 4.43 yards per carry to 39.1 YPG and 2.84 YPC whenever Green was unable to play from 2014-16, as teams were completely focused on stopping the Bengals rushing attack.

Will Hill be able to capture that magic in the superior Patriots offense? Hill was at his best when teams had to focus on A.J. Green and New England has a comparable player in Rob Gronkowski. Add in Julian Edelman and Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and Hill will have plenty of receivers drawing attention down the field.

New England will also have to commit to throwing Hill the ball out of the backfield, or else he’ll face a similar fate to Mike Gillislee. The Patriots refused to use Gillislee as a receiver and opposing teams responded by stacking eight or more defenders in the box more frequently against Gillislee than against almost any other running back in the league.

Hill has 67 career receptions for 484 receiving yards, so he is certainly capable of a target or two per game to keep the defense honest. New England will turn the keys of the offense over to Rex Burkhead and James White if they truly want to air the ball out, but even the threat of Hill as a legitimate receiver would be enough.

The Patriots need the 230-pound Hill to be the bruiser that Blount was from 2014-16. He has the ability. He just has to earn the opportunity.