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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: Deep running back market could spark New England’s interest

Related: Patriots free agency preview: Six quarterbacks New England might be interested in

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ offense struggled in 2020, but it was actually quite decent advancing the football on the ground. The Patriots finished fourth in the league in rushing yards (2,346) and third in expected points added per rush (0.05). Still, the group is headed into an uncertain future — not just because the blockers up front might see some turnover: two integral members of the group are headed for unrestricted free agency.

James White and Rex Burkhead are established and reliable options, but as with all things New England the price will be a deciding factor. Accordingly, the team might look elsewhere to replace what the two provided: steady work in the receiving department, good pass protection skills, and elusive running when called upon to carry the football.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available next month, let’s first take a closer look at who New England currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Brandon Bolden
  • Damien Harris
  • Sony Michel
  • J.J. Taylor
  • Danny Vitale

One look at the current depth chart shows that New England is well equipped in the early-down category. Damien Harris and Sony Michel had impressive seasons last year, and as such are expected to play sizable roles in 2021 as well. The main question is therefore how the Patriots will try to fill the receiving and change-of-pace roles that were quite successfully manned by White and Burkhead over the last few seasons.

The two are not the only backs headed three for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • Rex Burkhead (UFA)
  • Jakob Johnson (ERFA)
  • James White (UFA)

While the future is unclear when it comes to White and Burkhead, Johnson can be considered a lock to return in 2021: he has proven himself a valuable contributor on offense and special teams, and as such is expected to be tendered as an exclusive-rights free agent. The other two are not in the same category, however, and are therefore candidates to move on.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent running backs — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Le’Veon Bell

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Kansas City Chiefs/New York Jets

2020 statistics: 12 games; 84 carries, 334 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns; 16 catches, 138 receiving yards

After his disappointing stint in New York, Bell arrived in Kansas City midway through the 2020 season but had a comparatively limited impact on the AFC champions’ talented offense. Playing second fiddle in the backfield behind first-round rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire, he registered just 359 yards from scrimmage in 10 games as a Chief and saw the field in just one of the team’s three playoff contests.

Despite his recent lack of success, the veteran might have some gas left in the tank as an experienced and versatile option out of the backfield. Accordingly, New England could try to bring him aboard on a one-year prove-it deal. Anything going beyond that, however, would likely not be the best use of resources considering Bell’s age and disappointing play since leaving Pittsburgh.

Tevin Coleman

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: San Francisco 49ers

2020 statistics: 8 games; 28 carries, 53 rushing yards; 4 catches, 34 receiving yards

Patriots fans may remember Tevin Coleman as part of the Atlanta Falcons’ backfield in Super Bowl 51. Since then he delivered two more quality seasons for the team before leaving for San Francisco — and his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan — in 2019. Coleman was a serviceable contributor in his first year with the 49ers, but failed to build on its last year due to a knee sprain that forced him to spend time on injured reserve.

Now headed for the open market, Coleman will likely be looking for a fresh start elsewhere. New England could give it to him on a cost-effective one-year pact while hoping for him to return to his pre-injury levels in a rotational role. While he will not become the next James White, the 27-year-old could help fill the Rex Burkhead change-of-pace role.

James Conner

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 statistics: 13 games; 169 carries, 721 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns; 35 catches, 215 receiving yards

Conner burst onto the scene in 2018 and has been the Steelers’ number one running back ever since. But while his work between the tackles gained most of the attention and earned him a Pro Bowl nod three seasons ago, he is a well-rounded back and can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield as well. Does this qualify him as a target for the Patriots? Possibly, given that the team has no established pass catcher under contract beyond the next two weeks.

However, there are some major uncertainties attached to his name. How much will he cost after having spent the last three years as Pittsburgh’s RB1? Will putting him in a rotation next to Damien Harris and Sony Michel be a waste of his talents? Are his receiving skills enough to move him into a Rex Burkhead-like role? Conner would be an intriguing addition — especially in case New England opts to trade Michel — but the fit in terms of role and finances is questionable.

Mike Davis

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Carolina Panthers

2020 statistics: 15 games; 165 carries, 642 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns; 59 catches, 373 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

For much of his career in the NFL so far, Mike Davis was a backup player with little production to his name. In 2020, however, he broke out and registered new career highs in every major statistical category — from rushing and receiving yards, to touches, to scores, to playing time share. Much of it was a product of Christian McCaffrey dealing with injury, but Davis delivered whenever on the field.

If the Patriots are looking for a receiving back to possibly replace James White, Davis might be their guy. He has comparatively little tread on his tires and will likely not cost all too much given that he was used in a rotational role for much of his season. While not the flashiest of backs after having eclipsed 400 scrimmage yards just twice in his six NFL seasons, he could be a target for New England.

Kenyan Drake

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Arizona Cardinals

2020 statistics: 15 games; 239 carries, 955 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns; 25 catches, 137 receiving yards

Kenyan Drake already proved himself a productive player while still with the Miami Dolphins, but he took his game to a new level after getting traded to the Cardinals last year. In 23 games since that move, he has gained 1,903 yards from scrimmage and scored 18 touchdowns — all while establishing himself as one of the best all-around backs in the league.

In case the Patriots are unable or unwilling to retain the versatile Rex Burkhead — the 30-year-old is coming off a season-ending knee injury — Drake would therefore be a perfect replacement option. The biggest question, however, is whether or not New England will be able or willing to invest in him: Drake could command top dollar on the open market, and the team might be better off investing in other options to fill what is essentially a package-specific role.

Duke Johnson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Houston Texans

2020 statistics: 11 games; 77 carries, 235 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown; 28 catches, 249 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown

The Texans traded a conditional third-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Johnson two years ago, but he has not helped his new team move into the upper echelon of NFL offenses. Johnson was serviceable — he gained 1,304 scrimmage yards in 27 games — but not nearly as productive as Houston likely would have hoped. Accordingly, Johnson was released by the club last week.

This means that he a) is already available to be brought aboard, and b) would not count against the league’s compensatory draft picks formula. Likely only looking for a shorter contract to prove his value once again, New England could bring him aboard as a cheap contingency plan in case White and/or Burkhead are lost.

Jamaal Williams

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Green Bay Packers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 138 carries, 593 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns; 35 catches, 258 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown

Fellow unrestricted free agent Aaron Jones was the Packers’ number one back in 2020 and will likely command top dollar on the open market later this month, but Jamaal Williams also had a solid year as his running mate: he was tied for third on the team with 851 yards from scrimmage, and proved himself a reliable rotational back capable of contributing in the passing and the running game.

As such, he could very well be on New England’s radar this year. His reliability in terms of ball security — he has yet to fumble in 64 career games — and pass protection might make him an attractive addition to the Patriots’ current group of backs. Add the fact that he is only 25 and not expected to cost as much as, for example, Jones, and he could find his way to New England if White and/or Burkhead move on in free agency.

T.J. Yeldon

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Buffalo Bills

2020 statistics: 5 games; 15 carries, 89 rushing yards; 5 catches, 63 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown

T.J. Yeldon was a productive back in Jacksonville, averaging almost 800 yards from scrimmage over his first four seasons in the NFL. Since moving to the Bills in 2019, however, this number has plummeted: he had the two worst statistical years of his career in Buffalo and failed to crack even 200 total yards each time.

Yeldon is all but certain to leave the Bills, and he likely will not do so on an expensive contract given his last two seasons. As a result, the Patriots could give him a look to help bolster the receiving skills of their current backfield. While more of a reclamation project than anything else, he could benefit from a more specialized role and get his career back on the track it was on before his stint in Buffalo.

Patriots outlook

As mentioned above, New England’s running back position faces some questions. On the one hand, James White and Rex Burkhead are about to enter free agency. On the other, the development (or projected development) of Damien Harris, Sony Michel and J.J. Taylor will have an impact on how the group will look like in the future — and whether or not some major investments, even in the team’s own free agents, will be necessary.

Realistically, the Patriots will not invest top dollar in a player such as Aaron Jones or even Kenyan Drake unless they feel supremely confident in their abilities to transform the offense alongside some better skill position talent elsewhere and possibly a new quarterback. It is more likely, however, that New England opts to go after second-tier players such as Mike Davis or T.J. Yeldon: somewhat proven options who will not look at RB1 snaps or money.

Of course, it also is entirely possible that no significant investments are made: Burkhead is a candidate to be brought back on the cheap, while J.J. Taylor did show some promise in limited action last year. Replacing James White, in case he leaves (keep an eye on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) will be a challenge, but the Patriots have some talent in the backfield as is. Minor tweaks might be all that is needed.