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ESPN: Patriots have Top 10 running back unit in the NFL

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Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The New England Patriots drafted a running back in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft for what is likely a handful of reasons.

Sony Michel was one of the best all-around running backs in the entire draft and the Patriots needed to replace Dion Lewis, who left in free agency. The Patriots saw how the New Orleans Saints used then-rookie running back Alvin Kamara and how that helped Drew Brees and the entire offense. Head coach Bill Belichick also recognizes that the running back position is now undervalued.

Michel will have a lot to prove, but he’s already impacted the perception of the Patriots running back corps. ESPN ranked the top running back positional groups in the NFL and the New England Patriots ranked 10th, behind the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, and Kansas City Chiefs.

Top three backs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead

Projected unit stats: 393 carries, 1,672 yards, 15 TDs; 105 receptions, 870 yards, 5 TDs

Outlook: The Patriots are known for their committee approach, but we very well could see a bit of a change in 2018 after Bill Belichick & Co. spent a first-round pick on Michel. Passing-down specialist White, versatile Burkhead and one of Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee also figure to mix in, but considering the team’s success with Burkhead and Dion Lewis last season, it’s fair to expect Michel will see an opportunity for significant touches.

Patriots backs have averaged a pedestrian 4.1 YPC over the past three seasons, but they were at 4.4 last season. The unit combined for a league-high nine touchdown receptions in 2017, and it ranks first with 23 over the past three seasons. Belichick’s sum-of-the-parts approach has worked fairly well, so we should expect another strong season from his backfield in 2018.

The Patriots rank first the AFC East, ahead of the Buffalo Bills (11th), New York Jets (26th), and Miami Dolphins (28th). The Indianapolis Colts rank worst in the league.

Will Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White form a top 10 rushing unit in the NFL? It’s quite possible. Only the Saints boasted a more productive backfield than the Patriots in 2017 and New England ranked around the top five in 2016, when you factor in receiving ability. While the Patriots rarely have a feature back in the “elite” discussion, there’s no question that the team leans on its running game.

The Patriots will have to find a way to replace Nate Solder at left tackle, but the return of Marcus Cannon at right tackle should help ease the transition. Add in another year of experience for the interior of Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason and the Patriots should have no excuse for not fielding a top 10 rushing attack.