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Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s offensive backfield appears to be in good shape heading into 2020

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: New England’s quarterback position hinges entirely on Tom Brady

NFL: New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, the series continues with the offensive backfield positions.

Current position group

Under contract: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, Jakob Johnson

Free agents: --

Outside free agents

Isaiah Crowell, Las Vegas Raiders (UFA): Coming off a season lost due to a torn Achilles, Crowell is expected to be available at a reasonable price. Considering that he is a dual-threat back and still only 27 years old, he should be able to make an impact wherever he ends up this year — even if best used in a rotational role.

Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals (UFA): Patriots fans may know Drake from scoring the game-winning touchdown in the so-called “Miami Miracle” game in 2018, but he is more than just a one-hit wonder: the 26-year-old is coming off back-to-back seasons with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, after all, and has proven himself a productive player both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield.

D.J. Foster, Arizona Cardinals (UFA): Foster is a familiar name in New England as he originally joined the league as an undrafted free agent signing by the Patriots in 2017. He was eventually signed off the team’s practice squad early in his rookie season, spending the next years in Arizona. Foster’s production was limited and he is not projected to break the bank in free agency, which might make him an attractive target for his former team.

Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): A former first-round draft pick who missed the early portions of the 2019 regular season due to a holdout, Gordon is one of the better running backs to enter the market this year. As such, he will likely make considerable money — and it is likely not to come from the Patriots.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (UFA): Henry is in the same basic category as Gordon: he is one of the most talented backs to be available in free agency this year, and will likely get paid after leading the league with 1,540 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground in 2019. New England does not appear to be a viable landing spot for the 26-year-old, whose situation will likely depend in part on the Titans’ plans at quarterback.

Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles (UFA): Howard looked good as a dual-threat running back in Chicago, but his first and possibly only year in Philadelphia was a disappointment: a shoulder injury limited him to just 10 games, and he had the worst statistical campaign of his career — failing to crack 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time in four seasons.

Carlos Hyde, Houston Texans (UFA): The veteran back joined the Texans via trade last August, and developed into a productive player for his new team: he had his first 1,000-yard rushing season and was a solid lead back for the team. While not the most electrifying runner, Hyde is an experienced option capable of working well in a rotational role.

Bilal Powell, New York Jets (UFA): An experienced change-of-pace back, Powell is coming off two relatively quiet seasons with the Jets. That being said, his experience and past production make the 31-year-old an attractive and cost-effective option for New England in case the team wants to add veteran depth behind the players already on the roster.

Verdict

The Patriots are well set in their offensive backfield heading into 2020. Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead are a formidable 1-2-3-punch at the position, with James Develin — despite coming off a season-ending neck injury — a reliable lead blocker. Brandon Bolden is a solid special teams presence, meanwhile, while second-year man Damien Harris offers upside as a rotational back alongside the top three. Jakob Johnson has shown his value as Develin’s backup in 2019, although his chances of making a fully healthy roster appear to be slim.

The Patriots investing substantial resources in the position via free agency therefore appears unlikely. If anything, New England might go after low-cost options such as Crowell or Powell — and that is only a realistic plan in case the team decides to move on from a member of its current position group via trade or release. The first scenario seems more plausible with Rex Burkhead, for example, clearing $2.9 million in salary cap space if traded. Such a move only seems likely, though, if the team is convinced Harris or a cheap outside hire can fill his role. And that should not be counted it.

Ultimately, it therefore seems like the best bet that New England enters 2020 with an offensive backfield looking a lot like 2019’s.