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Patriots training camp preview: How will practice reps be distributed at running back?

Related: Patriots training camp preview: Will Mac Jones build on his encouraging offseason?

NFL: New England Patriots OTA Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ 2022 training camp is right around the corner. Later this month, the team will reconvene at Gillette Stadium to kick off its next level of preparation for the upcoming season — and all that goes with it: full-contact practices, camp competitions, joint sessions, you name it.

Leading up to this year’s camp, we will take a look at all position groups on New England’s roster to give you some idea about the key actors, battles and storylines at each of them. Today, we will continue at running back.

Position group

Despite already having one of the deeper running back rooms in the NFL, the Patriots made some investments to bolster the group during the offseason. As a result, it now stands at six deep:

The Patriots usually split their running backs in two categories: early-down backs and receiving backs. The first is well-manned with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson as a potent one-two punch that combined to carry the football 352 times for 1,592 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Behind them, sixth-round rookie Kevin Harris offers depth as an early-down, between-the-tackles option.

As far as receivers are concerned, James White is the biggest name. A three-time Super Bowl winner and long-time team captain, White is the leader of the entire room and a valuable presence both on and off the field. His injury status — he ended 2021 on the sidelines after suffering a hip injury in September — might open the door for others to step up, though. Those others are rookie Pierre Strong Jr. and third-year man J.J. Taylor.

Camp competitions

Damien Harris vs. Rhamondre Stevenson: The Patriots have employed a rotation at running back ever since the late 2000s, and last year was no exception. That said, Harris was the clubhouse leader in opportunities and therefore de facto RB1 ahead of Stevenson. Heading into 2022, however, the latter will get his chances to maybe carve out a bigger role — especially with Harris headed into the final year of his rookie contract.

Pierre Strong Jr. vs. J.J. Taylor: With James White still recovering from season-ending hip injury, and with Brandon Bolden in Las Vegas, the Patriots’ receiving back job appears to be up for grabs. The two contestants? Strong Jr. and Taylor. The former is a lock to make the team based on his draft status, while the latter saw considerable action in lieu of White’s absence in mandatory minicamp. There is a chance that both end up making the team, but it would not be a surprise if one saw more action.

Kevin Harris vs. J.J. Taylor: Harris and Taylor play different roles in the Patriots’ offense, but they might very well be fighting for one spot on the roster. The question will be who will look better in the grand scheme of things and thus become the final layer of depth at running back behind Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, Pierre Strong Jr. and, if he is good to go, James White.

Stories to watch

How will the reps be distributed? The Patriots have a deep running back group — one that needs to be properly prepared for the season ahead. Accordingly, keeping a close eye on the rotation as well as who is getting more reps than others could give us an indication about how the team views the position and its talent heading towards the 2022 season; one that will see some changes within New England’s offense following long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offseason departure.

Will James White be ready for the start of camp? White’s 2021 season came to an end in late September, when he suffered a hip subluxation against the New Orleans Saints. The injury did not just force him to undergo surgery and enter a rehabilitation process, it also led to him being severely limited during offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp. Accordingly, White is a realistic candidate to start training camp and maybe even the regular season on the physically unable to perform list.

How much action will the rookies see? New England invested two of its draft picks in the running back position, selecting Pierre Strong Jr. in the fourth round and Kevin Harris in the sixth. As noted above, Strong Jr. is a lock to make the roster; Harris will have to fight for his spot on their the active team or the practice squad. One thing is true for both, however: they need to make the most of their opportunities in practice, no matter how many they will see.

Will Ivan Fears be present again? Long-time Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears retired from the position earlier this offseason, handing the keys over to his former assistant Vinnie Sunseri. But while Sunseri was running the show during organized team activities and minicamp, Fears was not far away either: he watched practice from the bleachers, seemingly still involved with the operation in some capacity. Him being a regular spectator again during training camp would essentially be confirmation of that.