clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Patriots 2021 offseason preview: Running back position faces unclear future after strong season

Related: Patriots offseason preview: Quarterback remains New England’s biggest question

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with eight teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at running back.

Brandon Bolden

Age: 30

Experience: 9

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Bolden has a salary cap hit of $1.99 million in 2021.

2020 review: Bolden was set to fill a familiar role with the Patriots in 2020 — the final year of his contract — as the elder statesman in the running back room as well as a valuable asset both as a rotational receiving back and core special teamer. However, he decided to exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause in late July and consequently spent the entire campaign away from the team.

2021 preview: Bolden took to social media in December to announce that he would return for the 2021 season, but questions still remain about his position on the roster. Turning 31 later this month and projected to play a relatively small role outside of the kicking game, the Patriots could opt to allocate resources elsewhere instead of holding onto the veteran. That said, the free agency statuses of James White and Rex Burkhead will likely play a role in the decision making process as well.

Rex Burkhead

Age: 30

Experience: 8

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Entering the final season of the three-year contract extension he signed with New England in 2018, Burkhead was again projected to serve as a versatile change-of-pace back in 2020. He did just that, and along the way had one of the most productive seasons of his career: before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 11, the veteran had registered 67 carries for 274 yards and three carries; he also caught 25 passes for 192 additional yards and three more scores.

While Burkhead finished the season on injured reserve, he still finished number two on the team in total touchdowns behind only quarterback Cam Newton’s 13. He also once again played a prominent role on special teams, finishing with a playing time share of 28.8 percent despite missing the final six games of the season.

2021 preview: Through the years, Burkhead has shown that he can be a reliable role player in the Patriots’ backfield. Accordingly, the team might have a vested interest in bringing him back despite the ACL tear that prematurely ended his 2020 season. His age, recovery status and position, however, might create a smaller market for his services in March — possibly opening the door for the Patriots to bring him back on a comparatively cheap deal.

Damien Harris

Age: 23

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Harris has a salary cap hit of $1.07 million in 2021.

2020 review: After seeing only limited playing time during his rookie season, Harris started the 2020 campaign on the sideline as well: he suffered a broken finger heading into the regular season opener and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. When he returned, however, he proved himself not just a capable early-down back but one of the most productive ball carriers in the entire NFL.

Harris finished the season ranked 11th in the league with 69.1 rushing yards per game. All in all, he carried the football 137 times in 10 games — he also missed the final three games of the season due to an ankle issue — and gained 691 yards. Finishing as the Patriots’ number one running back, he also found the end zone twice and added 52 yards on 5 receptions.

2021 preview: No other player on the Patriots’ roster made as big a jump between the 2019 and 2020 seasons as Harris, who grew from redshirt rookie to legitimate number one back. While the presence of Sony Michel will likely continue to impact his opportunities — the two project to be part of a rotation if both are healthy — he has proven himself an NFL-caliber early-down running back that also has some upside catching passes out of the backfield.

Sony Michel

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Michel has a salary cap hit of $3.06 million in 2021.

2020 review: Coming off a comparatively disappointing 2019 season, Michel was off to an up-and-down start in 2020 as well before a quadriceps injury forced the Patriots to send him to injured reserve. He eventually returned to the field in late November and after seeing only marginal action behind Harris, took over the lead role again while the second-year man was dealing with an ankle injury.

During those games, Michel looked like the impressive rookie he was in 2018 — averaging 6.1 yards per carry against Miami, Buffalo and New York. All in all, the former first-round draft pick finished the 2020 campaign with 79 carries for 449 yards and a touchdown. He also showed some receiving prowess by catching 7 passes for 114 yards and an additional score.

2021 preview: Entering the final season of his rookie deal, the biggest immediate question will be whether or not the Patriots decide to exercise the fifth-year option in Michel’s contract. While he had some solid moments over the last three years and was integral to winning the Super Bowl after the 2018 season, it seems unlikely New England will make that kind of investment with Harris also on the payroll.

So, what will 2021 hold for Michel? Unless the team decides to move on from him this offseason via trade, the expectation is that he will again be the 1B running back alongside 1A Damien Harris. While this might hurt his fantasy football value, it certainly would give the Patriots a fresh pair of early-down backs to work with.

J.J. Taylor

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Taylor has a salary cap hit of $780,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Despite arriving in New England as an undrafted rookie free agent and not having the benefit of a traditional offseason or any preseason contests, J.J. Taylor found his way onto the Patriots’ active roster ahead of the season opener. He even saw some action in the first three games of the season, but injuries later forced him to be inactive for the next 10 contests before returning to the field in Weeks 15, 16 and 17.

Taylor finished his first season in the NFL with 23 carries for 110 yards as well a 4-yard catch.

2021 preview: Even though he appeared in six total games as a rookie, 2020 was effectively a redshirt season for Taylor: he played only 50 offensive snaps all year and was never integrated into the offensive operation on the same level as the Patriots’ other backs. Still, his ability to serve as a potential all-around back makes him an intriguing member of the unit looking forward — especially with James White and Rex Burkhead headed for the open market.

James White

Age: 28

Experience: 7

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After registering 52 yards from scrimmage in the Patriots’ season opener, White missed two games following the death of his father in a car crash that also left his mother in critical condition. Despite the personal tragedy, the team captain returned to the field in Week 4 and finished the 2020 season with 14 in-game appearances.

Along the way, White played his usual role as New England’s receiving and two-minute back. As such, he carried the football 35 times for 121 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and also caught 49 passes for 375 yards and an additional score. While his output was solid especially considering the circumstances, the production was still not on the same level it had been in previous years: White’s 496 yards from scrimmage were his fewest since 2015.

2021 preview: A team captain and cornerstone of the offense for the past few years, White’s future with the Patriots is very much in question given his status as an unrestricted free agent. While he could return to New England on another moderate contract and continue to serve as a valuable cog in the team’s offensive machinery, it is also not unrealistic to see him move on after seven years in Foxborough — possibly to be closer to his recovering mother in Florida.