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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: J.J. Taylor is trying to leave his mark on a deep running back group

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: RB Brandon Bolden

Northern Arizona v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with one of New England’s rookie free agents.

Hard facts

Name: J.J. Taylor

Position: Running back

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 22

Size: 5-foot-5, 185 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Taylor’s experience in the NFL is obviously limited to the six weeks worth of virtual workouts and rookie programs since he was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent shortly after the conclusion of late April’s draft. That said, his experience playing at a comparatively high level of competitiveness goes far beyond that and includes his four-year career at the University of Arizona — one during which he proved himself a productive running back.

After seeing only limited playing time during his freshman year due to a season-ending ankle injury, Taylor emerged as a potent and versatile playmaker for the Wildcats in 2017. Over the three seasons that followed, he went on to appear in 36 games and carried the football a combined 549 times for 3,002 yards and 16 touchdowns while also registering 60 receptions for 471 yards and two more scores. Along the way, he finished first in the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards in 2018 and third in 2019.

What did his 2019 season look like? Taylor entered his redshirt junior season coming off the most productive campaign of his career, a 1,567-yard effort from scrimmage. In 2019, he was not quite able to reach the same level of productivity despite once again seeing plenty of action as the starting running back in Arizona’s offense: he appeared in 11 of the team’s 12 games — Taylor missed one game after suffering a high-ankle sprain in October — and touched the football a combined 180 times when on offense.

In total, he registered 1,010 yards and five scores as his team’s most consistently dangerous weapon: Taylor attempted 148 rushes for a combined 721 yards and five touchdowns, and also added 289 more yards on 32 receptions. While his rushing totals were down compared to his 2018 season, Taylor a) still posted an average of 4.9 yards per carry, b) had to play behind a struggling offensive line, and c) had the most prolific season of his college career in the passing game.

Taylor’s impact on the Wildcats extended beyond his contributions on the offensive side of the ball, however: the 22-year-old also finished his final collegiate campaign with 19 kickoff returns for a combined 448 yards and an average of 23.6 per runback — the second straight year he served as his team’s primary kickoff returnman and posted some solid efficiency numbers. In total, Taylor therefore finished the season with 1,458 all-purpose yards (132.5 per game).

2020 preview

What is his projected role? While Taylor’s offensive touches predominately came in the running game, his receiving prowess and general skillset make him well-suited to fill the change-of-pace role in the Patriots’ offense — one that is currently occupied by veteran Rex Burkhead. He would be used more in a rotational than an every-down role, but not give away the offense’s intentions quite like early-down runner Sony Michel or receiving back James White would.

What is his special teams value? Despite seeing plenty of action on the offensive side of the ball over his last two years at Arizona, Taylor also served as the team’s primary kickoff returner. As such, he posted some impressive numbers: he ran back a combined 41 kickoffs for 988 yards and a score. He also offers some experience as a punt returner after fielding three during his true freshman season and returning them for a total of 26 yards and a very solid 8.7 yards per attempt.

Does he have positional versatility? Taylor’s versatility at Arizona was somewhat limited. He was used primarily as a backfield/halfback option but did not see plenty of opportunities as a slot or perimeter receiver à la White or Burkhead. That said, he projects to offer plenty of value as a passing option at the next level — despite his lack of height and catch radius — that could be used in a role similar to that of ex-Patriot Dion Lewis: a do-it-all rotational piece that offers an intriguing combination of quickness and acceleration.

What is his salary cap situation? When Taylor joined the Patriots as a rookie free agent in late April, he signed a standard three-year pact that includes a guaranteed $100,000 — tied for third highest among New England’s undrafted rookies. That said, his cap number of $612,500 is still one of the lowest on the team’s current pay roll, and not among the top-51 contract values counting against the salary cap during the offseason.

What is his roster outlook? Headed by the aforementioned James White and Rex Burkhead, as well as Sony Michel, Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots field one of the deepest running back groups in the NFL at the moment. While Taylor could carve out a role and possibly make a more expensive option like Burkhead expendable, it seems more likely that his best bet of sticking around this year is via the practice squad — and possibly emerge in 2021, when White, Burkhead and Bolden are all set to become unrestricted free agents.