The New England Patriots don’t have a lot of stability at the running back position in the long term, especially of the pass catching variety. Rex Burkhead and James White are set to become unrestricted free agents, which leaves the team with Damien Harris, Sony Michel and J.J. Taylor as their primary ball carriers. I expect the Patriots to fill the lead pass catching back role in free agency, with the intent to develop the next great receiving threat out of the backfield.
With the running back by committee approach the Patriots employ, the team doesn’t have to invest more than a Day Two pick at the position. One such player that fits the bill could be North Carolina’s Michael Carter. Carter was one of the best players at the 2021 Senior Bowl, and mentioned as a big winner from that game right here on Pats Pulpit.
Name: Michael Carter
Position: Running back
School: North Carolina (Senior)
Size: 5’8” 202 lbs
2020 Stats: 11 games, 156 carries, 1,245 yards, 9 TDs; 25 catches, 267 yards, 2 TDs
Expected Draft Range: 3rd
Week 1 Age: 22
Strengths: Versatility is a big part of Carter’s game. He’s a capable runner and pass catcher out of the backfield, although he’s not the type of back who can be on the field on all three downs. His field vision, combined with a feel for being able to maximize blocks works very well in the open field and as a receiver out of the backfield.
His production isn’t that of a one-year wonder either, as he was coming off a 177/1,003/3 season as a junior. However his scrimmage yards improved from 1,100 to over 1,500 during his final year at North Carolina.
After that, Carter took his talents to Mobile for the Senior Bowl. Following an excellent week of practice, Carter was one of the best performers in the actual game that included him dragging the opposing defense five yards into the end zone — with some help from his teammates — for a touchdown. That catapulted his stock to a likely Day Two selection as someone who makes sense as either a No. 2 or a No. 1B back in a committee style system.
Weaknesses: Carter isn’t the type of back who will slip out of a lot of tackles, as he is not exceptionally fast, quick or elusive and also does not have strong balance to shake off hits. As a result, he profiles more as a Kevin Faulk-type back who gives you modest rushing outputs but has his value in pass protection and catching the ball of the backfield.
Carter likely won’t provide the same impact on special teams as the Patriots Hall of Famer, but his impact on the offense would be similar. His skillset serves more as a complementary piece to an offense looking to add more talent to its passing game.
Why the Patriots should draft him: As mentioned above, the Patriots don’t have a lot of certainty at the running back position, with White and Burkhead off to unrestricted free agency. Two years ago, the Patriots drafted Damien Harris out of Alabama despite a deep backfield that featured White, Burkhead, and Sony Michel. Harris ended up sitting as a rookie, but seized the lead back role in 2020 when Michel got injured and never relinquished it.
Carter would not be asked to be the primary guy churning yards out on early downs against base defenses like Harris, but could be a complementary weapon as a slasher and threat out of the backfield as a receiver.
Why the Patriots should not draft him: It really depends on the value, but Carter isn’t the player that New England should go out of their way to acquire. While he has established himself as a top-five running back in this year’s class, it is not a difficult position to find talent at. The Patriots also have bigger needs at other positions, with a defensive front seven that clearly needs multiple picks to add talent to. In addition, they already have a potential young option for his role in second-year back J.J. Taylor.
Who would he have to beat out: His primary competition would likely be J.J. Taylor. Taylor had a productive college career at Arizona before flashing his talents in the limited carries he got with the Patriots in the regular season. Given the potential lack of depth, the Patriots will likely need all of their backs to contribute considering that Michel and Harris haven’t been able to stay consistently healthy during their NFL careers.
In the offseason, as mentioned above, I expect the Patriots to make at least one free agent move at the position — whether it is bringing back White and/or Burkhead, or signing another back who can contribute in the passing game. Given that White doesn’t create matchup problems against defenses that add an extra defensive back when he’s on the field, they may elect to let him walk and pick up a fifth- or sixth-round compensatory pick in the 2022 draft in return.
2021 Role: I would not be surprised if Carter would see limited reps as a rookie, given that he has very minimal special teams impact and the team can ride a combination of Michel, Harris, Taylor, and an additional veteran signing if necessary. It’s likely that he starts as the 4th RB on the depth chart behind the three players mentioned above.
2022 and beyond role: The expectation is that Carter becomes the 1B back with Damien Harris for 2022 and becomes a versatile weapon out of the backfield. He would create matchup problems in the passing game against linebackers in heavier defenses, and can run on lighter defenses when teams match him with a safety or corner. The Patriots had that type of matchup in the past with Burkhead, Faulk, and — before 2019 season — White as well.
Conclusion: With the chess match between offenses and defenses getting more complex over the years, it’s important for the Patriots to help their passing attack by adding players who can simplify the offensive approach. While the committee has worked in the past, it has also made the offense predictable against smarter defenses when the team utilized Blount/Harris/Michel on early downs while mixing in White on passing downs
Teams were able to match those substitutions by putting an extra defensive back on the field to neutralize White, so having that pass catching back who can run on nickel/dime defenses is critical because Harris/Michel won’t see that personnel grouping.
Carter will not make a big splash early as he learns the intricacies of the offense, which includes pass protection, how the routes need to be run, and the offensive plan of attack. With a third-round selection, the Patriots can add a complementary piece to their offensive backfield while still utilizing their higher selections to add some help to the receiving corps and front seven.