When it comes to roster construction, the New England Patriots have followed a few simple guidelines during their two-decade long dynasty. Among them are finding talent by attacking markets inefficiencies and not forcing players into roles they are not comfortable in. The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have also regularly adapted their scheme on both offense and defense to reflect the strength of their available personnel.
Whether it is a shift away from a 4-3 defense in the early 2000s, using spread looks on offense to take advantage of a deep wide receiver corps, implementing 12-personnel as the new base attack after drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, or building the top-ranked defense in football on the back of an aggressive man-to-man coverage scheme, New England has always looked at the players in the fold and made changes accordingly.
Only one factor remained the same for the past 20 years: Tom Brady. Through all of New England’s schematic and personnel-based changes, the greatest quarterback of all time remained under center and delivered high-quality play no matter if the Patriots spread the field or used a ground-and-pound attack like they regularly did during their 2018 Super Bowl run. The machine’s look may have changed, but the engine remained the same.
Starting in 2020, the engine will also look differently. With Brady leaving New England to take over as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new starting quarterback, his old team will have to find a way to replace him. The number one candidate for the time being appears to be second-year passer and former Brady backup Jarrett Stidham. That said, the Patriots will do what they have always done: they will adapt their defense based on their personnel.
Stidham naturally projects to be a downgrade from Brady (despite being 19 years younger than the future Hall of Famer), which means that head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might try to look elsewhere to find a new engine — at least as much as you can find one in the NFL of 2020 and outside of the most important position in all of football. The obvious position group to look at, though? Running back.
New England’s running game had its ups and downs in 2019, ranking near the middle of the league in both traditional and advanced statistics: the Patriots finished the regular season with the 18th most rushing yards (1,703) and 10th most rushing touchdowns (17) in the league, and also ranked just 25th with an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Their offensive DVOA when running the football — -2.7% — was the 15th best in the NFL.
That said, the Patriots’ offensive backfield and the composition of their starting offensive line might make for a potent combination in 2020. Let’s start by looking at the talent in the backfield:
Early down backs: Sony Michel, Damien Harris
Receiving/scat backs: James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden
Fullbacks: James Develin, Danny Vitale, Jakob Johnson
New England did add fullback Danny Vitale in free agency to offer depth alongside James Develin and Jakob Johnson — both of whom ended the 2019 season on injured reserve — but other than this acquisition left their offensive backfield unchanged since last year. This means that the team will head into 2020 with Sony Michel and Damien Harris as the early down backs, as well as James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden as the primary pass-catching options.
Michel may have had a down year compared to his rookie season, but he still is a capable early down back with Harris an intriguing complementary piece despite essentially being redshirted in 2019. White and Burkhead, meanwhile, are two of the better backfield receivers in football. As such, and given the Patriots’ uncertainty at both the wide receiver and the tight end positions at the moment, are expected to play a big role in New England’s passing attack once again as reliable safety-net receivers for Stidham (or another quarterback).
The two playing a prominent role as receiving options would be nothing new, as this chart from last year illustrates (via Twitter/@mrcaseb):
As can be seen, the Patriots are among the most aggressive teams in football when it comes to using their running backs as receiving options down the field. Among backs with 30+ targets during the 2019 season, Burkhead ranks second and White sixth in the league in average depth of target. Given the aforementioned uncertainty at the other two skill positions, it would not be a surprise if New England again relied heavily on the two receiving backs to move the ball through the air.
Like Sony Michel and the running game, White and Burkhead might therefore impact the Patriots’ offensive attack due to their diverse skillsets and abilities to add another dimension to the team’s aerial game as reliable underneath targets.
Going back to running the football, the Patriots also have some solid depth despite Harris being a virtual unknown. That said, his status as a third-round draft pick just one year ago makes him a wild-card as a potential short-yardage back or 1B option alongside Michel — a player that has shown he can shoulder the load and work in unison with the offensive line to generate considerable yardage and power New England’s offensive attack.
Speaking of the offensive line. The unit may have lost assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia and 2019 starting center Ted Karras, but it might get fellow center David Andrews back after a one-year absence due to blood clots in his lungs. Add the return of left guard Joe Thuney via the franchise tag plus some potential improvement by left tackle Isaiah Wynn, and you should see some solid blocking up front compared to a unit that ranked fifth in pass protection and ninth in run blocking (according to Football Outsiders’ calculations) last year.
A lot of the outlook for 2020 is based on projection, sure, but given the offensive roster as it currently stands it would not be surprising if the Patriots decided to have their backfield players see an increased role to lift pressure off of the new starting quarterback and a wide receiver/tight end corps in flux. Adapting the team to fit the personnel, as noted above, is what New England has done over the past 20 years. This one should be no different.