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Patriots 2021 training camp competitions to watch: Early-down running back

Related: Patriots training camp competitions to watch: Off-the-ball linebacker

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ offense struggled mightily during the 2020 season, but not all position groups looked as bad as those directly involved in the passing game. Working behind a strong offensive line, the running back group was one of the best in the business throughout the season.

Led by second-year standout Damien Harris, former first-round draft pick Sony Michel and veterans James White and Rex Burkhead, the group managed to challenge opposing defenses in a way the passing game simply never could. While they were still unable to turn the Patriots’ offensive fortunes around, they looked encouraging — especially with an eye towards the future.

Heading into 2021, the group will look a lot like last year’s. There are a few changes, though: Burkhead left the team in free agency; Brandon Bolden will return from the Coronavirus opt-out list; Tyler Gaffney was signed as a free agent; Rhamondre Stevenson was added in the fourth round of the draft. The rookie in particular will be an interesting player to watch this summer given that he is directly competing with Harris and Michel for the early-down role.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at the battle.

The competitors

RB Damien Harris, RB Sony Michel, RB Rhamondre Stevenson

With James White, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden and Tyler Gaffney all projected to compete for the change-of-pace and receiving roles held by White and Rex Burkhead last year, the other three backs on the roster are projected to fight for early-down snaps. Given the quality within that group, it should be a fun battle.

Harris is the favorite after having led the Patriots in rushing attempts (137) and rushing yards (691) last season. Entering his third year in the NFL, he projects as a vital part of New England’s offense yet again. That being said, Michel also was quite productive when given the opportunity in 2020: he carried the football only 79 times but gained 449 yards for an impressive average of 5.7 yards per carry.

As for Stevenson, it remains to be seen how he will factor into the mix. The rookie has a lot of the qualities that made LeGarrette Blount a productive back in New England, and he very much could compete for early-down snaps as well as opportunities in the short-yardage and red zone games depending on when he will be activated off the non-football injury list.

The deciding factors

Vision and patience: The Patriots employ a mix of zone and man blocking schemes, meaning that the running backs will have to be able to properly read what is happening in front of them. If need be, they also have to show the patience to let their blocks develop before attacking through a hole or behind a pull blocker. Both Harris and Michel have shown that they can do all that at an NFL-caliber level; Stevenson is a bit of a wild card in this area as far as doing it in a pro level setting.

Power and elusiveness: Compared to receiving or change-of-pace backs, early-down backs work in a different setting. Defenses are less likely to sell out against the pass on early downs, creating more challenging situations for the ball carriers. Accordingly, they will need to show an ability to run through tackle attempts or to push the pile forward. They also need proper elusiveness when reaching the second level or open field.

Ball security: You can be the most impressive athlete in the world, but if you cannot hold onto the football you will not have much of a future at the running back position. Just think of former Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, who had all the talent in the world but on average fumbled the ball on every 66th of his touches during his time in New England. Fumbles are a quick and easy way to lose the coaching staff’s trust.

Pass protection: Protecting the football is obviously important; the same has to be said about protecting the quarterback in passing situations. Not every early-down look will automatically result in a run play, after all, meaning that proper pass blocking power and technique is required of every running back. Last year, Damien Harris allowed pressures on 3.8 percent of his pass blocking snaps compared to Sony Michel’s 13.3 percent.

Versatility: When the Patriots played the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53, they were unable to get things going offensively due to the defense’s ability to match personnel looks based on whichever running back was on the field. Having flexible players who are also a threat in the passing game could help with that. Harris, Michel and Stevenson all have had some success as receiving options over the course of their respective careers, but they have so far not been regularly used in passing situations. Maybe their camp performances will change this.

The prediction

The Patriots have as impressive an early-down running back group as any team in the NFL today. Damien Harris was one of the best runners in football last year — only Derrick Henry had a better per-carry average among players with more than 100 rushing attempts — while Sony Michel proved himself an efficient player last year as well. Add high-upside rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and you get a strong 1-2-3.

The question is how the teams will employ them. The belief is that Harris will see most of the early-down snaps, but the Patriots could also opt to use him as more of a Rex Burkhead-like member of its rotation. In that case, Michel and Stevenson might be asked to share early-down and short-yardage duties.

Of course, New England could also use Harris as a traditional RB1 with Michel and/or Stevenson only entering the field in select situations. In that case, there is a chance that the former first-rounder is very much fighting for a job this summer: if Stevenson proves himself a competent player on early downs, the team might decide to move on from Michel via trade or release.

The most realistic outcome is that all three will make the roster, with Harris as the top option and Michel as the number two. However, there are multiple potential outcomes which in turn makes this camp competition one of the most intriguing of the summer.