Even after trading Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams last summer, the New England Patriots were able to get some solid contributions out of their running back group in 2021. Led by third-year man Damien Harris and rookie standout Rhamondre Stevenson, the Patriots ended the season ranked in the top 10 in conventional rushing statistics and advanced metrics alike.
With the book closed on the 2021 season, however, the Patriots will have to look forward. And what they will see is only three members of their backfield being under contract beyond March 16 3:59 p.m. ET. Those three are as follows:
- Damien Harris
- Rhamondre Stevenson
- J.J. Taylor
- Devine Ozigbo
Harris and Stevenson are a potent one-two punch and combined to gain over 70 percent of New England’s rushing yards during the regular season; they also scored 20 of the team’s 24 rushing touchdowns. While running back play can never be fully evaluated in a vacuum — the blocking up front plays a major role as well — both of the Patriots’ lead backs can feel good about their performances in 2021.
Them being signed for 2022 is therefore good news. That said, the club still has to make some investments in its backfield. The following players, after all, are headed towards free agency:
- James White: Unrestricted free agent
- Brandon Bolden: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
- Jakob Johnson: Restricted free agent | Free agency profile
Whereas Johnson served as the Patriots’ featured fullback for the last two seasons, both White and Bolden saw most of their offensive action as receiving backs. Unless the team feels confident in J.J. Taylor’s ability to take over, or would be willing to trust a draft pick, getting them back into the fold would be important.
If that cannot be done or if some upgrades are desired, though, the Patriots could look to the open market. In that case, the following players might be suitable options:
Devontae Booker (UFA): A capable player in both the passing and the running games, Booker has a connection to the Patriots via former New York Giants head coach Joe Judge. If Judge lobbies for him to be brought aboard and the circumstances work in his favor, the 29-year-old might be given a chance in New England.
Matt Breida (UFA): The Patriots have gotten a close look at Breida the last two years, when he was with the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. While underutilized by both clubs, he might have some value to New England: Breida can help as a runner and receiver to help fill a role last played by Rex Burkhead in 2020.
James Conner (UFA): Conner was employed as an early-down back in Pittsburgh and Arizona, but his versatility might make him an intriguing addition to the current New England backfield personnel. The question is how much he will cost after gaining 1,151 yards from scrimmage in 2021 and scoring 19 touchdowns.
Cullen Gillaspia (RFA): The Giants will likely not tender Gillaspia before the start of free agency, which would give New England an opportunity to bring him aboard in the unlikely case Jakob Johnson is not retained. The connection with Patriots offensive assistant and former Giants head coach Joe Judge cannot be disregarded either.
David Johnson (UFA): His age — Johnson turned in December — and comparatively pedestrian 2021 campaign will likely limit his ability to get significant contract offers in free agency. That said, Johnson is just two years removed from gaining 1,005 yards from scrimmage and could still help a team like the Patriots as a receiving back.
Duke Johnson (UFA): Johnson was a dual-threat running back during his time in Cleveland, but his recent stints in Houston and especially Miami have torpedoed his value. That said, if the Patriots feel that they can help him turn his career around, he might be an option — especially given that ex-Texans head coach and New England assistant Bill O’Brien saw him as his own version of James White when he traded for him back in 2019.
J.D. McKissic (UFA): McKissic was relatively quiet in Seattle and Detroit, but recently hit his stride with the Washington Commanders. The 28-year-old gained 1,576 yards in two seasons with the team and is an intriguing player due to his abilities as a receiver and a runner. McKissic is coming off a season that ended on injured reserve due to a concussion, but he is a player worth keeping an eye on.
Ty Montgomery (UFA): The Patriots fared well in 2018 when they added Cordarrelle Patterson to the fold. Montgomery’s highs have never been as high as Patterson’s, but he would offer the team some intriguing versatility and experience — especially in case one of James White or Brandon Bolden are not retained.
Patrick Ricard (UFA): Ricard ended the 2021 season on injured reserve due to a knee injury, which means that his medical status will likely determine his outlook. That said, if healthy he might be a solid addition to the team in case it is unable or unwilling to retain Jakob Johnson.
Jalen Richard (UFA): The Las Vegas Raiders used Richard as a multi-purpose weapon over the last six years, but his role decreased the last few seasons. Accordingly, a change of scenery might be best even with a new head coach arriving in Las Vegas.
Boston Scott (UFA): Scott was used as a role player throughout his time in Philadelphia, but he has proven himself a versatile player. The 26-year-old is capable of lining up all over the formation and contributing in the passing game, running game, and on special teams. However, he has never exceeded 600 yards from scrimmage in a single season.
Damien Williams (UFA): Despite being a veteran of eight NFL seasons, Williams has comparatively few touches on his career résumé. Those touches, however, have shown that he can be a capable situational back who has some upside in the passing game.
Darrel Williams (UFA): Kansas City’s number one running back in terms of playing time last year, Williams has experience both as an early-down runner between the tackles and in the passing game. The Patriots would likely use him primarily in the latter role, but his experience in both areas makes him an enticing player.
New England making some investments in its backfield is necessary. Whether those come through re-signings, outside additions or the draft remains to be seen. However, it seems likely that at least two of James White, Brandon Bolden and Jakob Johnson are retained to join Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor and Devine Ozigbo on the offseason roster.
That being said, as the list above shows, there are some outside options available that might be worth a look as well. White, Bolden and Johnson are probably the priorities over them, but they might just come in handy if push came to shove in regards to those three.