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Offseason preview: Patriots projected to have a deep backfield heading into 2020

Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ quarterback position faces an uncertain future

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with four teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the offensive backfield where the Patriots have seven players currently (still) under contract.

Brandon Bolden

Position: Running back

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Bolden has a salary cap hit of $2.0 million in 2020.

2019 review: After spending the 2018 season with the Miami Dolphins, Bolden returned to New England on a two-year contract in 2019. The veteran saw comparatively limited action on offense — he was on the field for only 95 of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (7.9%), touching the football 24 times for 147 yards and four touchdowns — but he did play a key role in the kicking game: being used on all four coverage units, Bolden finished the season with seven tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.

2020 preview: While not a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster in 2020 due to the fact that the team could save $1.5 million by parting ways with him, Bolden should be expected back due to his value as an emergency option on offense and a core special teamer. The latter is especially true with fellow kicking game aces Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner both being scheduled to hit free agency, and with Brandon King coming off a year-long stint on injured reserve.

Rex Burkhead

Position: Running back

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Burkhead has a salary cap hit of $4.0 million in 2020.

2019 review: Serving as the third running back in the rotation, Burkhead appeared in 14 of the Patriots’ 17 games in 2019 and regularly showed his skills as a change-of-pace back. Not only did he finish the year — regular season plus playoffs — with 68 rushing attempts for 306 yards and three touchdowns, he also caught 30 passes for 309 yards. Furthermore, he also saw considerable action in the kicking game and registered a combined six special teams tackles.

2020 preview: Even though he missed three games because of a foot injury, Burkhead generally looked good in 2019 both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield and on screen plays. That being said, his contract situation — the Patriots could safe $3.0 million if they parted ways with the 29-year-old — and the fact that the team invested a third-round pick in a running back last year does not bode well for him. Extending Burkhead to lower his 2020 cap number seems like a possibility, but so does a straight-up release.

James Develin

Position: Fullback

Age: 31

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Develin has a salary cap hit of $1.45 million in 2020.

2019 review: Returning as the Patriots’ fullback, Develin saw his 2019 campaign come to an end just 58 snaps in: during New England’s Week 2 game against the Miami Dolphins, the veteran hurt a muscle and disc in his upper back/neck area and would later be placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.

2020 preview: Develin played a key role during the Patriots’ 2018 title run and was one of the best fullbacks in the NFL before his season-ending injury. The expectation, therefore, is that he will be back next year if medically cleared.

Damien Harris

Position: Running back

Age: 22

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Harris has a salary cap hit of $879,534 in 2020.

2019 review: The Patriots selected Harris with the 87th overall selection in the 2019 draft but opted to take a slow approach in his first year as a pro. Overall, he was active for just two games during his rookie season and played a mere 10 snaps — five on offense and five on special teams — while registering four carries for a combined 12 yards in Week 7.

2020 preview: After essentially being redshirted in 2019, Harris is expected to play a bigger role next season as a rotational third option at the position and possible replacement for Rex Burkhead. With one year now under his belt, don’t be surprised to see the Patriots give him considerable looks during training camp and the preseason.

Jakob Johnson

Position: Fullback

Age: 25

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Johnson has a salary cap hit of $585,000 in 2020.

2019 review: Entering the NFL through the league’s International Pathway Program, the Patriots signed Johnson as a roster-exempt 91st player after the draft. The German-born rookie did impress the team over the summer, however, and was eventually signed to the practice squad with the option to be promoted further down the line (New England could have opted to sign him as an 11th practice squader ineligible to play in 2019 but decided against it).

After James Develin was placed on injured reserve, this is exactly what the team did: before hurting his shoulder and being placed on IR himself in mid-October, Johnson appeared in four games as a lead blocker and special teamer.

2020 preview: With Develin’s eventual status still up in the air, Johnson serves as a valuable depth piece for the time being that should at least spend training camp and the preseason in New England. While him leapfrogging the veteran on the depth chart appears to be a long-shot at this point in time, the 25-year-old should be expected to play in the league in 2020 — the question will be whether it is with the Patriots or somewhere else.

Sony Michel

Position: Running back

Age: 24

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Michel has a salary cap hit of $2.63 million in 2020.

2019 review: Michel played a key role in the Patriots winning the Super Bowl during his rookie season, but his 2019 campaign was off to a slow start — in part because of the blocking: with the tight end situation in flux, center David Andrews on season-ending injured reserve, and both fullbacks being placed on IR as well, the former first-round draft pick found himself in a difficult spot over the first half of the season.

That being said, Michel was at times also unable to make the right decisions and be decisive when running the ball. At the end of the day, therefore, he finished the season with only 57.2 rushing yards per game down from 79.2 the previous year: he appeared in all 17 of New England’s contests, but registered just 973 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on a combined 261 attempts (3.7 yards per run).

2020 preview: Despite an up-and-down sophomore year, Michel is a lock to return in 2020 due to his role as New England’s lead back in combination with his comparatively cheap contract and upside within the offense. However, he — and the blockers in front, too — will have to show some more consistency in his third season in the NFL if the Patriots offense wants to return to the ground-and-pound attack it used at times in 2018.

James White

Position: Running back

Age: 27

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. White has a salary cap hit of $4.63 million in 2020.

2019 review: Coming off the most productive season of his career, White again played a key role in New England’s offense in 2019 as a receiving back that was used primarily on third down and in up-tempo/no-huddle situations. In this role, the 27-year-old appeared in 16 of the team’s 17 games — missing one due to the birth of a child — and finished as one of its most productive offensive skill position players.

White carried the football 68 times for 277 yards and a touchdown, and also caught 77 passes for 707 yards and an additional five scores. All in all, he proved to be the passing offense’s second most consistent playmaker behind wide receiver Julian Edelman.

2020 preview: Together with Sony Michel, White is once more expected to head the Patriots’ backfield in 2020. A candidate for a contract extension — the Patriots could save $1.74 million if they opt to go this way — the former fourth-round draft pick is expected to go nowhere even with Damien Harris potentially growing his role.


How would you grade the Patriots’ running back position heading into 2020?

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