For as bad as the New England Patriots’ passing offense was in 2020, the rushing attack was that good. Led not just by backs Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead, but also by dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, New England had one of the most productive running games in all of football.
Heading into 2021, the group again projects as a strength even with Rex Burkhead having joined the Houston Texans in free agency and some personnel changes along the offensive line. Still, the core of the group has remained in tact — and it also received some influx of young talent in the form of Rhamondre Stevenson.
A fourth-round draft pick earlier this offseason, Stevenson is a big-bodied back who projects as an early-down option in the mold of Harris and Michel.
While it remains to be seen how he will be used in his rookie season, the Oklahoma product has left a positive first impression on his position coach.
“He’s got great feet, great athletic ability. He seems to be a smart player,” Ivan Fears said during a recent media conference call. “If he can make the transition from what he was doing at Oklahoma to here, the guy has got a hell of a future for himself.”
Stevenson joined the Patriots off a productive two-year stint with the Sooners. Appearing in 19 games, he carried the football 165 times and gained 1,180 yards while scoring 13 touchdowns. His numbers in combination with his intriguing frame put him on the pre-draft map, and eventually led the Patriots to picking him with the 120th overall selection.
Listening to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels break him down, it is not hard to see what the team liked in him.
“Big back. Certainly good vision. Displayed quick feet,” McDaniels said about Stevenson. “Ability to break tackles, make yards with the ball in his hands. Demonstrated an ability to catch the football and do something with it when he was used in the passing game. He’s tough enough to stand in there and block blitzers and do things in protection that can help you when he’s in there and that happens to be the case.”
While projected primarily as an early-down option based on his usage in college, the Patriots seem to envision him playing a multi-dimensional role (something that has never quite happened with former first-round draft pick Sony Michel). His experience in this area might be limited — he caught 28 passes for 298 yards at Oklahoma — but the team apparently sees plenty of potential when it comes to his usage.
“That kind of body, that kind of athletic ability,” Fears said about the 23-year-old. “He’s probably a better pass receiver than even LeGarrette [Blount] was. This kid has got pretty good hands. There are a lot of doors open here. We’ll see what sticks to him.”
Ex-Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is a popular pro-level comparison for Stevenson.
Like the 6-foot-0, 230-pound rookie, Blount — who was listed at 6-foot-0 and 250 pounds in the Patriots’ 2016 media guide — won with power rather than quickness. He was able to run people over and keep his legs moving through contact, but also had the patience and vision to make his style work in the NFL.
Stevenson has also shown these traits during his college career, and he too will have to make the transition to the pro level. That is exactly what is currently being worked on during offseason practices.
“He’s been given the same opportunities that a lot of our guys have been given,” McDaniels said. “Learn our offense. Learn our terminology. Understand how we do things, what our operation is. He’s going to make plenty of mistakes and we’re going to correct them. Hopefully by the time we get to training camp he’s got a decent foundation to build from and then he has an opportunity to compete with our room, which, we have a lot of guys in that room that are pretty good football players.”
Despite his upside and positive early impression, however, Fears pointed out that Stevenson is not guaranteed anything.
“We’re not going to give him a free ride,” the veteran running backs coach said. “He’s going to have to earn everything he gets. If he doesn’t earn it, he gets to watch. That’s what happens. This is going to be determined by him, not by a committee.”
The Patriots do not need Stevenson to get up to speed quickly given that they are well-positioned at the running back spot with Harris and Michel as two experienced early-down options. Given their recent injury histories, however, having a player in the fold capable of stepping in certainly is a positive.
New England will give Stevenson every opportunity to become this player, even though he will have to prove himself worthy of them first.