The New England Patriots’ running back position is well set for the 2021 season. Damien Harris and Sony Michel project as the one-two punch on early downs, while James White was re-signed to serve as a receiving back. Add veteran Brandon Bolden and youngster J.J. Taylor as depth options and you get one of the better running back rooms in football.
However, that does not mean the club won’t be willing to invest further resources at the position. Running backs have been devalued for almost 20 years now, but New England has always tried to find good value and talent regardless of how the rest of the league is operating.
If the club wants to do that again this year, Chris Evans might be an option on the third day of the draft.
Name: Chris Evans
Position: Running back
School: Michigan (Redshirt Senior)
Opening day age: 23
2020 stats: 6 games (1 start); 16 carries, 73 yards, 1 touchdown; 9 catches, 87 yards
Size: 5110, 211 lbs, 76 wingspan, 32 1/2 arm, 9 3/4 hand
Workout numbers: 4.51 40-yard dash, 40 1/2 broad jump, 10’7” vertical jump, 4.14 short shuttle, 6.85 3-cone drill, 20 bench press reps
Expected round: 6th-7th
Strengths: Evans offers a good build and desirable athletic measurements to succeed at the next level. His speed and quickness are solid; his hand size allows him to plug balls out of the air and tightly hold onto them when playing in bad weather; his strength serves him well when asked to pass protect. He also has the explosiveness to be a “touch-and-go” player both as a receiver and when asked to carry the football.
Evans moves well when in the open field, which helps him to get free on wheel or intermediate routes. He does not tip his hand when moving into his route, which allows him to separate from hesitant linebackers at the second level.
RB Chris Evans was always an excellent receiving RB during his time at Michigan— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 27, 2021
49 receptions (56 targets) for 479yds in his career. Screens, Angles, Flares... Consistently plucks away from frame and gets upfield immediately pic.twitter.com/mtrsXX8C8c
He also knows how to stay low and runs with a good pad level and steady base — being able to squeeze through holes or evade technically sloppy tackle attempts. Even though his production fell off a cliff later during his career at Michigan, he has put up some solid numbers in 2016 and 2017 while showing his skills as a multi-dimensional player capable of helping in the running and passing games.
Weaknesses: Evans has an adequate athletic foundation but with the exception of his vertical and broad jump numbers does not necessarily stand out among his peers. He can function at the NFL level, but will likely not offer much as an early-down back or bell-cow runner while his limited opportunities after a solid start in Ann Arbor raises some questions: he took a statistical step back in 2018, sat out 2019 due to academic reasons, and in 2020 touched the football only 25 combined times for 160 scrimmage yards.
Evans also is on the older side for a rookie, already turning 24 in October. There is a chance he already hit his ceiling and will be nothing special at the next level despite his positional versatility and upside in the passing game. On top of it all, he will have to work on his ball security at the next level: while he brings some well-sized mitts to the table, he fumbled the ball four times on 369 career touches.
Why the Patriots? As NESN’s Doug Kyed found out, in terms of measurements there is no running back in this year’s draft class that fits what New England is looking for quite like Evans. Even beyond his athletic skillset and size he might be a player the Patriots are keeping a close eye on: he can contribute in the passing game and as such is a candidate to be groomed behind James White to possibly take over after the 2021 season.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots already have a well-established receiving back on their roster in James White, and also employ J.J. Taylor as a potential change-of-pace option behind him. With Taylor having his moments during his 2020 rookie season, New England might not be willing to roll the dice on another developmental back on the third day of the draft.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? With James White recently re-signed to a one-year contract, the top three positions on New England’s running back depth chart all appear to be set in stone. While things can always change due to injury or possible other transactions — Sony Michel might be a trade candidate — Evans would serve primarily as an emergency option. Taking a redshirt year is nothing new for Patriots backs: both White and Damien Harris did just that upon their arrival. Evans would probably take the same route.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? With both Sony Michel and James White headed for unrestricted free agency next year, Evans would be a prime candidate to take on a bigger role within the Patriots’ offense. Realistically, he would help the team replace White’s contributions in the passing game — thus ideally serving as the next third-down and up-tempo back.
Does he have positional versatility? As far as running backs are concerned Evans is certainly no one-dimensional player. He can contribute as a ball carrier and a receiver, even though his touches have been limited at Michigan. His abilities in the passing game, however, are primarily why he might hear his name called in the draft: he is better suited to fill a third-down role than to become an early-down back like Damien Harris or Sony Michel, even though he has shown he can very well succeed as a runner.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of Rex Burkhead, the Patriots shied away from extensively using their running backs in the kicking game last year. That does not mean Evans will have no value in the game’s third phase, though. He could possibly replace Burkhead’s contributions on kickoff and punt return units as well as the punt coverage squad. As a side-note, he served as special teams coordinator at Huron High School during his 2019 season away from the Wolverines.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? While only Damien Harris and James White can be considered locks to make New England’s roster next year, Evans would not compete against early-down back Sony Michel. Instead, his competition for a roster spot would come in the form of Brandon Bolden and especially J.J. Taylor: the battle between the youngsters would be an intriguing one to watch over the summer.
Verdict: The Patriots like to plan a year ahead when it comes to their draft picks, and picking Evans would allow them to do just that. While he was somewhat lost within Michigan’s offensive backfield rotation in 2020, he could become a solid role player for New England further down the line — and possibly a James White replacement at one point.