Arguably the strongest position group the New England Patriots had on their 2017 roster was at running back. Headed by the top trio of Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead, the unit amassed a combined 3,138 yards from scrimmage during last season's 19 games and reached the end zone a total of 30 times.
However, all good things must eventually come to an end. For the Patriots, the end was free agency: While Burkhead was re-signed on a three-year deal, de-facto starting back Dion Lewis was lost to a four-year, $23.0 million contract offer by the Tennessee Titans. But despite Lewis moving to the AFC South, New England's offensive backfield is as deep as any in the NFL.
Besides White and Burkhead, the team also has Mike Gillislee under contract as well as fullback James Develin and special teamer/emergency option Brandon Bolden. Furthermore, the Patriots added two more players over the course of the offseason: They signed Jeremy Hill as an unrestricted free agent and invested a first-round draft pick in Georgia's Sony Michel.
The competition at running back therefore projects to be one of the most exciting ones over the course of the summer – one both new additions seem to embrace. “It’s great. It’s high,” said Hill, a 2014 second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, about the competition level of the group. “Obviously, those guys have played in Super Bowls and played at high levels and played big in playoff games, so the competition is definitely there.”
“But I have all the faith in myself to go out there and compete at a high level, as well,” continued Hill. The 25-year old had a productive start to his pro career and averaged 919 rushing yards and 153 receiving yards as well as 10 total touchdowns over his first three seasons in Cincinnati. However, injuries and the arrival of highly-touted rookie Joe Mixon derailed his career with the Bengals.
Therefore, Hill was able to sign a one-year $1.5 million contract in New England – joining a deep running back group even after Lewis left for Tennessee. “It’ll only bring the best out of all of us,” continued the LSU product about the competition he will face over the next few weeks. “I think that’s how we want to approach every day, just playing at a high level, all of us and only good things can come from that.”
While Hill has to fight for a spot on the Patriots' 53-man roster, Michel is a safe bet (barring injury, of course) to be on it come week one. After all, the 23-year old was just drafted as the 31st overall player not even two weeks ago. As such, he will see plenty of chances to earn playing time over the next weeks and establish himself as a key cog in New England's offensive machinery. But he also very well understands that he has joined a crowded backfield.
“They have a group of guys that are willing to work,” Michel said shortly after getting selected by the Patriots. “Great players. Great playmakers. Great guys I can learn from, I'm willing to learn from.” Despite coming with plenty of experience at the college level – Michel averaged 148 carries, 903 yards and eight touchdowns per year at Georgia –, the rookie still knows he has to learn the intricacies of the NFL game.
“I’m eager and can’t wait until I can get just one thing from each one of those guys and just know that it’s going to be a wonderful experience to get around those vets, guys that have been there before, been in this league and done it in this league and to be able to see what I can get out of them,” continued Michel. As complimentary as he sounds about the group he will join after this week's rookie minicamp, he knows he will have to compete at the highest level.
Michel does not sound afraid of the challenge: “I know I’m going to be able to go in there and just compete and have guys that are going to challenge me every day trying to get the best out of me.” What the best will look like remains to be seen – but it could play a huge role in the Patriots' offensive success moving forward.