The New England Patriots not only have to replace long-time receiving back James White this season, they will also have to find a way to replace his replacement.
Ty Montgomery, who was signed to a two-year free agency deal this offseason, originally played the White role throughout the summer but an ankle injury suffered in the preseason finale against Las Vegas will keep him out for an unspecified amount of time. The length of his absence remains to be seen, but an optimistic projection is that it will be less than four games: otherwise, he would have been sent to short-term injured reserve.
Nonetheless, with White retired and Montgomery currently unavailable, the Patriots need somebody else to step up in the early portions of the regular season. Given that they have only three healthy running backs on their roster, plus two more on the practice squad, the options are limited.
J.J. Taylor is one of those, as are rookies Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris. The most likely candidate, however, might just be Rhamondre Stevenson.
The sophomore running back, after all, has focused on improving his pass-game contributions throughout the summer. And while the preseason results have not reflected it — 18 players caught at least one pass with Stevenson not among them — head coach Bill Belichick sees him trending in the right direction.
“Certainly an effort to improve and that’s a great thing,” Belichick said on Sunday when asked what he has seen from the young back as a receiver and in blitz pickup. “All players, no matter how good they are — and we have a lot of good players — have the obvious strengths and that’s what carries them to this level in the National Football League and to the opportunity to be productive on this team.
“But we all have weaknesses, and it’s good for every player to identify what he needs to work on, and then address it, and try to improve that so it doesn’t continue to be a weakness. It’s something that he now has shown that he can do, or it might even become a strength. So, I really admire Mondre for doing that and for the effort that he’s put into it.”
Stevenson entered the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick last year, and despite comparisons to former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount proved himself a versatile player: he ended up catching 18 passes in 2021 for a combined 156 yards.
Those numbers do not jump off the page, but they already showed that Stevenson has some potential as a change-of-pace option out of the backfield. He will likely never become the next James White, nor Ty Montgomery 2.0, but he can be a serviceable option in this area — something New England will need given the current circumstances.
Accordingly, Stevenson might become an X-factor for the team’s offense in 2022. His success in such a role obviously has yet to be determined, but Belichick expressed some confidence in the 24-year-old.
“We haven’t had a lot of live blitz situations come up,” he said. “But we’ll get some I’m sure, especially from Miami, and same thing in the passing game. A lot of our passes the last couple of weeks have gone to players who are right now on the practice squad, like Kevin [Harris] and J.J. [Taylor], people like that. So, he hasn’t had a lot of chances to do that in games. But he’s done it well in the past at times.
“I think his attention to the details of his route running and passing game have certainly shown up in practice. Hopefully they’ll show up in the games now.”