With the offseason workout program in the books and training camp being kicked off later this month, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with running back J.J. Taylor.
Name: J.J. Taylor
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 42
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5-foot-5, 185 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)
What is his experience? Taylor entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent signing by the Patriots last year, meaning that he has one season of experience at the professional level under his belt. That is not particularly much, though, especially considering that a) he did not have a traditional spring and summer preparation due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and b) he appeared in only six games as a rookie. That being said, he did see plenty of game action during his four-year college career at the University of Arizona.
After receiving only limited playing time as a freshman because of a season-ending ankle injury, Taylor emerged as a potent and versatile playmaker for the Wildcats in 2017. Over the three seasons that followed, he went on to appear in 36 games and carried the football a combined 549 times for 3,002 yards and 16 touchdowns while also registering 60 receptions for 471 yards and two more scores. Along the way, he finished first in the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards in 2018 and third in 2019.
What did his 2020 season look like? Despite his productivity at the college level, Taylor did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2020 draft. Instead, he had to enter free agency to find a professional home. He did just that when the Patriots signed him to a three-year deal, giving him an opportunity to compete for a spot on one of the deepest running back depth charts in football. Despite his status, lack of experience, and inability to showcase his talents during offseason workouts and preseason games, he made the 53-man squad.
Taylor did not make it straight away, though. The Patriots initially waived him as part of their roster cutdowns before later adding him to their practice squad. However, he was promoted to the active roster ahead of the regular season opener versus the Miami Dolphins — a game he actually appeared in and finished with a combined 12 snaps between offense and special teams. Along the way, Taylor touched the football five times for a total of 32 yards. Unfortunately, the game was not a sign of things to come.
The rookie appeared in only five more games for the rest of the year, missing time as either a healthy scratch or because of medical issues such as an illness or a quad injury. In total, Taylor was therefore on the field for only 50 offensive snaps as a rookie (of 1,011; 4.9%) as well as 13 more in the kicking game (of 399; 3.3%). It became obvious fairly early during the season that the coaching staff viewed him primarily as a developmental option whose real in-game value in 2020 was that of an emergency running back.
His numbers reflect that usage, even though he also showed some promise during his comparatively rare on-field opportunities: Taylor carried the football 23 times for a combined 110 and an average of 4.8 yards per run; he also caught one of his two targets in the passing game to add 4 more yards to his totals. He furthermore saw some action in the kicking game, running back one punt for 11 yards and also returning four kickoffs for 87 yards at a 21.8-yard average.
What is his projected role? Even though he did not have the benefits of a traditional offseason or preseason slate, the Patriots trusted Taylor in a multi-faceted role last season. He only saw limited action, sure, but he showed what his future role might look like: he has “change of pace back” written all over him due to his ability as a between-the-tackles runner and his upside as a pass catcher out of the backfield. As such, he might become the heir to Rex Burkhead’s former role with the club.
What is his special teams value? After already seeing considerable action as a return man at Arizona, the Patriots also let Taylor run back a few kicks during his rookie season. Heading into 2021, it would not be a surprise to see him get more opportunities. While the punt return role is in Gunner Olszewski’s All-Pro hands, Taylor appears to be among the front runners to earn the kickoff return role this season.
Does he have positional versatility? Taylor’s versatility both at Arizona and during his first season in New England was somewhat limited. He was used primarily as a backfield/halfback option but did not see plenty of opportunities as a slot or perimeter receiver à la James White or Rex Burkhead: only three of his offensive snaps (of 50; 6%) came with him aligned outside of a traditional running back spot. That said, he does offer some upside as not just a ball carrier but a receiving back as well.
What is his salary cap situation? Taylor could play a more prominent role in the Patriots’ offensive backfield and kicking game this season, but his contract is still among the cheapest on the roster. The second-year man carries a salary cap hit of only $780,000, which currently puts him below the Top-51 threshold. That means that he will only count against New England’s books if he makes it onto the active roster, an injury-related reserve list, or the practice squad.
What is his roster outlook? While Taylor is no lock to make the roster based on his 2020 production and status as a former rookie free agent, he appears to be in a solid position to make the cut yet again. The 23-year-old showed some promise as a rookie, after all, and with Rex Burkhead off the team might have an open path towards the 53-man squad. He will still have to earn a spot, obviously, but if he can show some development both on offense and special teams, he could very well play himself into the running back rotation again.