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The Patriots’ running game has a bright future ahead

New England’s ground game played a key role in the team’s title run, and it should get only better.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The year is 2019, and behind us lies an NFL season that saw passing offenses produce at a higher rate than ever before. Led by league MVP Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, teams averaged 237.8 yards and 1.7 touchdowns (compared to 0.8 interceptions) per game through the air — unheard of numbers. And yet, the Super Bowl was won using a different, more balanced approach: the New England Patriots were willing and able to run the football equally effectively en route to the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Going against three of the NFL’s best offenses in the playoffs, the Patriots relied on their ground attack to control the tempo of the games and limit the chances the opponents — including Mahomes’ Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game — would get. The plan worked as New England dominated time of possession in all three of its postseason contests, a testament to the team’s game plans and also the quality of the rushing attack.

The Patriots averaged 161.7 yards on the ground during the playoffs, a notable improvement over the 127.3 posted during the regular season. Two reasons for that are the improved play of the offensive line, a unit that played lights out in pass protection and run blocking all throughout the tournament, and the consistency and availability of rookie running back Sony Michel to complement Rex Burkhead and to a lesser degree receiving back James White.

And the future continues to be bright for the group even with left tackle Trent Brown headed towards unrestricted free agency and Rob Gronkowski reportedly again mulling retirement. After all, the majority of the team’s run-game personnel remains intact heading into 2018 — and beyond. While Michel is signed through 2021, White and Burkhead both remain under contract through the 2020 season.

The situation is similar up front. Center David Andrews is also locked up until after the 2020 campaign, with right guard Shaq Mason even under contract through 2023. Meanwhile, Marcus Cannon is not scheduled to hit the open market until March 2022 — the same as last year’s first-round draft selection Isaiah Wynn (a potential replacement for either Brown or Cannon), if the Patriots opt to not exercise his fifth-year contract option.

With fullback James Develin also under contract through 2020, the biggest longer-term question outside of the aforementioned Brown and Gronkowski appears to be left guard Joe Thuney. The 26-year old is coming off a dominant performance in Super Bowl 53 and the best overall year of his career, and is entering the final year of his contract as a realistic candidate to see a contract extension come his way soon.

The biggest x-factor, however, might very well be Sony Michel. The 31st selection of last year’s draft was outstanding in his first season as a pro. Despite dealing with separate knee injuries in training camp and the early regular season as well as during the year, the Georgia product was terrific: Michel gained 1,267 yards and 12 touchdowns on 280 carries for averages of 4.5 yards per carry and 79.2 yards per game.

If the 24-year old can build on the foundation he and the team were able to lay during the 2018 season, New England’s already potent rushing attack might be able to improve even further next year — something that might become even more important considering the current state of the passing game personnel, in part because of Gronkowski eventually stepping away from the game.

But even outside of the future Hall of Fame tight end the Patriots’ group of receivers might look drastically different next season: while Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman remains under contract, the next three men on the depth chart — Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson — are all scheduled to become free agents next month. Meanwhile, Josh Gordon is still indefinitely suspended.

2018 already saw plenty of turnover at the receiving skill positions, and the running game was able to pick up the slack. The Patriots might very well need it to do the same in 2019 to keep their offensive success going without putting too much pressure on Tom Brady and a possibly new-look group of players surrounding him. If last year is any indication, though, New England’s ground game should be ready to do just that.