With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.
Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with running back Bilal Powell.
Position: Running back
Opening day age: 31
Size: 5’10, 205 lbs
Experience: Since entering the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick in 2011, Powell has served as a reliable rotational back for the New York Jets. While never a true number one option at the position and hampered by injuries over the last two years — he appeared in only 20 of 32 possible games in 2018 and 2019 — he is still entering free agency with an impressive career résumé that includes 5,275 yards from scrimmage.
2019 statistics: 13 games; 59 rushing attempts, 229 rushing yards; 11 passing targets, 7 receptions, 33 receiving yards
2019 salary cap hit: $735,000
Free agency status: Unrestricted
View from New York
We asked Michael Nania from Gang Green Nation to share his thoughts on Powell:
Powell has been a steady presence in the backfield for nearly a decade. He is a downhill, aggressive runner, hitting the hole hard and looking to run through defenders rather than around them. This is an approach that has worked well for Powell, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry from 2014-18 despite usually playing behind an atrocious offensive line. He is an excellent pass protector. As a receiver, he has not shown much capability to split out wide or run routes, but he has proven capable of carving some extra yardage out of a dump-off. His career drop rates are very low.
Injuries are a question mark for him, as he has only played two 16-game seasons in his nine-year career despite never carrying too much of a load (his career high in touches per game is 13.4). 2019 was a down year for the 31-year old Powell, as he averaged career-lows in yards per carry (3.9) and yards per target (2.8), although the Jets’ offensive line was close to the league’s worst.
Altogether, Powell has been a reliable change-of-pace back throughout his career, a great second or third option. He can give the starter a rest for a few plays and rumble for a five-yard gain, pick up a blitz to set up a deep shot, or leak out to provide a last-resort dump-off option. I’m not sure how much he has left at this stage, but I’d be willing to have him back in New York or bring him on as a backup if I were another team.
Powell checks a lot of the boxes when it comes to what the Patriots are looking for at the running back position: he is a good runner between the tackles, has experience both as a ball carrier and a receiver out of the backfield, and is strong in pass protection. From this perspective, he would naturally fit in well with what New England is doing offensively and how the backfield is used as a versatile part of the team’s attack.
That being said, Powell does not come without his questions. The biggest of which is definitely his injury history in combination with his diminished productivity over the last two seasons: the 31-year-old had just 139 carries since 2018 for 572 yards, as well as an additional 18 catches for 143 yards and a score. For comparison, the Patriots’ Rex Burkhead has a similar output on the ground (588 yards and 6 touchdowns on 148 carries) but much more production in the passing game (487 yards and a score on 51 receptions).
Could Powell serve as a cost-effective replacement for Burkhead and potential number three/four in the rotation alongside second-year man Damien Harris? That is a big question when it comes to a potential union between the Patriots and their long-time rival. Given his career as a whole the answer might be yes, but the last two years are somewhat of a red flag.
The Patriots are rather deep at the running back position heading into the offseason, with all five members of last year’s group under contract in 2020. That being said, if New England wants to reduce the position’s salary cap impact and move on from Rex Burkhead and his $3.9 million cap hit, Powell might be a viable replacement option alongside the aforementioned Damien Harris. The (ex-)Jet would be a clear downgrade from Burkhead, however, and with Harris a virtual unknown heading into year two it would be some surprise if New England went that route.