The running game was one of the few positives for the New England Patriots during the 2020 season. True to Josh McDaniels’ mantra of designing the unit based around the strengths of the players, the Patriots built their attack around a deep corps of running backs, a dual-threat quarterback, and an impressive offensive line.
Heading into 2021, however, changes might be on the horizon for New England. Not only are quarterback Cam Newton abs starting O-linemen Joe Thuney and David Andrews headed for unrestricted free agency, the same is also true for running backs James White and Rex Burkhead.
The Patriots might soon be forced to replace their versatile skillsets. Luckily, they have a player on the roster who did show some promise despite playing a limited role in 2020: J.J. Taylor.
Even though he was on the field in just six games, Taylor appears to have left a positive impression on his head coach.
“He’s a guy that’s got a future if he can continue to improve and do things in some of the areas that maybe he hasn’t been asked to do as much in — things like pass protection, route running and so forth,” Bill Belichick recently said about Taylor.
Him now being in that spot certainly was not a given considering that he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in what very well might have been the most difficult offseason any rookie class has ever faced. And yet, the Arizona product was able to do enough in practice to be signed to the Patriots’ practice squad after his release on roster cutdown day. His stint on the developmental squad was just a short one, however.
Two days later, he was promoted the 53-man roster and did not leave it again.
“J.J. earned a spot on the roster through his play in practice,” Belichick said about this. “No preseason games this year, so it’s a little hard to evaluate and that’s a tough position for a running back, when you don’t see him get contact or get tackled. You see the run skills, but you don’t see the rest of the play very often until you get into the game situation, and that’s really the defining part of the job.
“He’s done a good job of coming in, earning a spot, earning some playing time, earning some opportunities. He’s also worked some as a kick returner. We worked him back there a little bit earlier in the year.”
All in all, Taylor ended the season appearing in six games: he played the first three and the last three, struggling with injuries and his spot on the depth chart in between. He finished his first season in the NFL with 23 carries for 110 yards as well a 4-yard catch.
The numbers themselves may not be outstanding, but they are a foundation to build off as Belichick pointed out.
“This is different, but in some ways similar to last year,” said Belichick. “Damien [Harris] was inactive for most of the year, didn’t get a lot of opportunities and then this year when those opportunities came — a) he was a better player, he was further along, and b) he was productive with those opportunities. A lot of question marks about the depth we had at running back and why do you need another one and all that.
“I’m glad we have Damien Harris and I’m glad we have J.J. Taylor. So, we’ll see how that progresses going forward.”
Harris made the jump to the top of the depth chart in Year Two and finished as the Patriots’ leader in rushing attempts (137) and rushing yards (691) despite injuries limiting him to just 10 games. Whether or not a similar jump is in the cards for Taylor remains to be seen, but given the uncertainty New England faces at the position his versatile skillset could come in handy and give him an increased opportunity to prove himself in 2021.
Until then, however, he is just enjoying the ride
“It’s been a dream come true,” Taylor said ahead of the Patriots’ season finale against the New York Jets. “It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of since a kid, and always had a point to prove. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. I’m living my best life right now.”