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2021 Patriots positional preview: Running backs

Related: Patriots positional preview: Quarterbacks

New England Patriots v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Believe it or not, the 2020 New England Patriots offense had a strength, and it came in the form of their running back group. The early-down duo of Damien Harris and Sony Michel combined for over 5 yards per carry, Rex Burkhead was on his way to a career season before going down with a torn ACL in Week 11, and James White held down the fort once again on passing downs. Overall, the group outpaced the receivers by more than 200 total yards. They simply were the Patriots offense.

Luckily for Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense, they’ve been able to keep that strong core together. Harris, Michel, and White are all set to return, and their lone departure Rex Burkhead was replaced with a third round pick in Rhamondre Stevenson. With such a competitive group, the goal becomes finding out how to best use all of these players, and in what role do they fit best?

Damien Harris

There were few players on the 2020 Patriots roster that made as big a leap as Damien Harris. After gaining only 12 total yards in his rookie season, Harris exploded onto the scene with 691 rushing yards in 10 games. His 5.0 yards per carry ranked sixth amongst all running backs. During that ten game stretch, Harris made it clear that he was the Patriots top back.

There are still some questions headed into year three however. Durability hasn’t been a strength for Harris, and his workload will only get heavier as he moves closer to the season. If the Patriots are going to move forward with Harris at the helm he will need to prove that he has the ability to stay healthy, especially with fellow early down back Sony Michel headed into a contract year.

Sony Michel

Sony Michel has been a bit of a disappointment since his monster rookie campaign, constantly being sidelined by knee injuries and having trouble staying on the field. Michel enters the final year of his rookie contract and is set to hit free agency at the conclusion of the 2021 campaign after the Patriots failed to pick up his fifth year option.

However, Michel will likely get anywhere from 10-15 carries per game to take a bit of the load off 2020 breakout star Damien Harris. The Patriots certainly drafted Michel’s replacement in Rhamondre Stevenson, however, it’s unusual for Bill Belichick to give a rookie running back a heavy workload. Michel — when healthy — will likely handle the RB2 role but will need to have a strong camp to make the Patriots loaded 2021 roster.

James White

It was the cherry on top to a great off-season when the Patriots finally re-signed James White in late March. Since the 2015 season, the three-time Super Bowl champion ranks first out of all running backs in receptions (364), receiving yards (3161) and touchdowns (25). Having White back into the mix with the Patriots improved passing attack in 2021 can help make Cam Newton or Mac Jones job easy on checkdowns or throws into the flat.

White saw a bit of a reduced role in 2020 seeing his lowest snap count and touches since 2015, however, a lot of it had to do with missing some time due to the tragic loss of his father and his mother going through an extensive recovery process since the beginning of the season. White, who seems to be doing much better this year, is poised for a big season with the Patriots expecting to air it out a bit more from 12 personnel.

J.J. Taylor

Fresh off making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2020, JJ Taylor will look to have an extended role in the Patriots offense. Taylor had a career day in week 3 vs. Las Vegas where he turned in 11 carries for 43 yards and showed promise as a ball carrier. The shifty, tough and quick runner Taylor didn’t have much of a role as a rookie but with Rex Burkhead signing in Houston, Taylor may be able to expand his role outside of special teams. The Patriots are high on “Little Dion” as longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears calls him after he went into detail regarding Taylor following the 2020 training camp and season.

Taylor was used mainly as a kick returner for the Patriots in 2020 but with Rex Burkhead out of the fold and some snaps to go around for running backs, expect Taylor to be an interesting piece as both a rusher and pass catcher in the Patriots crowded running back room.

Rhamondre Stevenson

Bill Belichick’s penchant to zig when everyone thinks he is going to zag has become a popular anecdote amongst NFL fans when referring to his tendencies as a GM. The latest example of that was when he decided to draft Rhamondre Stevenson with the 120th pick in the 2021 draft, despite returning his three most used backs from one year ago.

At first glance it was a curious move, but after deliberation, an understandable one. Since Josh McDaniels’ return in 2012, the most effective backs in his system have been the “change-of-pace guys”. Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead were all players that could be a threat on the ground, through the air, and as a pass blocker. With Burkhead’s departure to Houston, Stevenson will have an opportunity to step in and earn an immediate role in New England’s strong running back rotation.

Brandon Bolden

Mr. Reliable is back for year number eight in New England. A jack of all trades, Bolden’s importance to the Patriots roster has been tested a couple of times in the past four seasons as the vet spent a year in Miami in 2018 and opted out of 2020. In the two seasons that he was gone the Patriots depth at the position was tested, and the special teams unit as a whole was less consistent.

Bolden is a chess piece that the Patriots have been able to use to cover up mistakes in the past. This year it will be tough for him to re-earn his spot with such a competitive roster, but his value won’t be overlooked come cut down day.

Tyler Gaffney

What a life Tyler Gaffney has lived. The former Carolina Panthers’ sixth round pick has had an eventful seven years since he was originally drafted. NFL stints with the Panthers, Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers are spread out over a period that also includes a couple of Super Bowl rings and a short lived professional baseball career.

The second (or eighth if you count all the times he was waived) go-round with New England offers an intriguing redemption story. Can Gaffney, a 30 year-old retired baseball player, finally play in his first NFL game? We’ve seen crazier things happen.

Jakob Johnson

The lone fullback on the roster, 2021 should make for the easiest path to a roster spot that Johnson has had so far in his career... right?

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Though Johnson is the only true fullback on a team that has carried one in every year since 2013, the offensive scheme looks like it will be eerily similar to that of the ‘13 squad. With an abundance of tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers there might not be any use for a fullback.

The best chance for Johnson to make the team will come in how the team views the offense, will they continue to rely on the power running game or convert to more of a zone/option scheme that erases the need for a player of Johnson’s caliber?

Who will we see on each down?

Damien Harris led all Patriots in snaps and touches a season ago, so it is hard to think anyone else will truly compete with Harris to handle the majority of the carries. He was a top running back in the league last year due to his ability to run through the tackles, run through contact and consistently make plays at the second level. After a strong sophomore campaign, Damien Harris will continue to emerge as one of the better early-down backs in the NFL.

Will we see a change in fullback philosophy?

The million dollar question that we kind of already answered, is a fullback an absolute necessity on the 2021 New England Patriots? Probably not. The majority of the Patriots offense will be run out of 12-personnel, employing two tight ends, two wide receivers, and one running back. In 2020, they ran a lot of “red” personnel which employed two rushers and three receivers. Combine that with the fact that they have three running backs and a quarterback on the roster that all run 215+ pounds. There isn’t much need for beef in the backfield. There simply isn’t a need for a fullback on this roster.

Can someone replicate the Rex Burkhead role?

This is a complicated question because there are two answers. Can one person replicate Burkhead’s role from last year by themselves? No. Can a group of players with similar skill sets be plugged into specific situations and replicate the success? Absolutely.

With Harris, Michel, and White’s roles set in stone, it looks as if Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor may be the men for the job. A combination of Taylors quick burst between the tackles and Stevenson’s contact balance and quick feet on the outside make up the sum of what Burkhead did well as a rusher. Stevenson runs crisp routes and has soft hands like Burkhead did. If both men can improve on their pass protection, the running back rotation shouldn’t miss a beat.

What does the future look like at the position?

All signs point towards Damien Harris handling the majority of the work for the running backs for the next two seasons on his rookie contract. However, with the future uncertain around Sony Michel and James past the 2021 season, the pick of Rhamondre Stevenson in this past April’s draft, looks like Harris and Stevenson will be the two running backs of the future. Stevenson is a bigger back that can wear defenses down with his bruising style and also showed his ability to chip in as a pass catcher, as well. Finding balance has always been the key in the Patriots backfield, Harris and Stevenson should be able to provide that.