With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror and training camp set to kick off later this month, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year running back J.J. Taylor.
Name: J.J. Taylor
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 42
Opening day age: 24
Size: 5-foot-6, 185 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)
What is his experience? Taylor originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent signing by the Patriots in 2020. Despite the Coronavirus disrupting his rookie spring and summer, he found himself on the 53-man roster to start the regular season and has been a part of it ever since. That said, he only saw the field sporadically over his first two years in the league: Taylor has appeared in just 11 of 34 possible games between his rookie and sophomore campaigns. He touched the ball 47 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
Before his arrival in New England, Taylor enjoyed a productive four-year college career at Arizona. After receiving only limited playing time as a freshman, he emerged as a potent 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 2021 season look like? Taylor spent a majority of his 2020 rookie season on the Patriots’ game-day inactives list, but still faced a favorable outlook heading into Year 2 due to his intriguing ability as a receiver and ball-carrier as well as his potential role as a return man. Sony Michel getting traded to Los Angeles and fact that he led the team in all-purpose yards during the preseason — he had 371 yards as a runner and receiver, kickoff and punt returner — only bolstered his case. Indeed, Taylor was able to make the cut.
That being said, his 2021 campaign looked a lot like his rookie year. Taylor only saw the field irregularly, even after fellow receiving back James White suffered a season-ending hip injury. However, the other running back depth ahead of him on the depth chart — in particular Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden — limited his opportunities, as did some medical issues: Taylor missed one game because of a groin injury and also had to spend almost a month on the Covid-19 reserve list.
In total, he therefore saw the field in just five of a possible 18 games and played a mere 55 snaps between offense and special teams. He was given 51 snaps as a running back (of 1,169; 4.4%) and three in the kicking game (of 464; 0.6%). Along the way, Taylor touched the ball 24 times: he ran it on 19 occasions for 37 yards and the first two touchdowns of his career, both against the New York Jets in Week 7; he also had four catches for eight yards as well as a 25-yard kickoff return in Week 10 versus the Cleveland Browns.
Based on his rookie season and the circumstances, his 2021 campaign can be seen as a disappointment for Taylor. Not only did neither his role nor his statistics significantly evolve in his second season in the system — some even decreased compared to 2020 — he also was unable to take advantage of White’s almost year-long stint on the sidelines. When faced with a decision about how to replace the team captain, New England’s coaching stuff ultimately trusted veteran and core special teamer Brandon Bolden more than Taylor.
What is his projected role? Based on his usage in the regular season and preseason so far, it is clear that New England views Taylor as a change-of-pace option within their backfield. He has some abilities as a between-the-tackles runner and offers upside as a pass catcher out of the backfield, even though the team has not regularly tapped into the latter just yet. Still, he has the potential to serve as an up-tempo back similar to ex-Patriot Rex Burkhead.
Does he have positional versatility? Taylor’s versatility both at Arizona and during his first two seasons 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 the aforementioned Rex Burkhead: only four of his 51 offensive snaps (7.8%) came with him aligned outside of a traditional running back spot. Nonetheless, he should be able to offer something as not just a ball carrier but a receiving back as well.
What is his special teams value? Even though his special teams output was limited to one kickoff return in 2021, Taylor has some experience in that area. He was New England’s leading kick returner in last year’s preseason, for example, averaging 22.7 yards on his three kickoff returns and an impressive 8.9 on seven punts. The Patriots have some return talent on their roster, but Taylor factoring right into the mix would not be a surprise either.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the three-year pact he signed with New England in 2020, Taylor is carrying a salary cap number of $895,000 — a cap hit currently not high enough to qualify for Top-51 status, meaning that he will only count against the Patriots’ books if he makes the 53-man roster come September. The contract itself is pretty straight-forward: it consists entirely of a non-guaranteed salary. The team would therefore not take on any dead cap in case of a release or trade.
How safe is his roster spot? Even with Brandon Bolden now in Las Vegas, Taylor is on the roster bubble. However, the time appears to be now for him: he has more experience than fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong Jr., who offers a similar skillset, and might be in a position to fill in for James White should he open training camp or even the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. He did just that during mandatory minicamp, which might have been a sign of things to come.
One-sentence projection: The circumstances outlined above makes it entirely possible that Taylor finds his way onto the opening 53-man roster even with Pierre Strong Jr. also a lock to make the team.