Even though they failed to truly establish themselves as such, the New England Patriots wanted an offense in 2022 that could successfully run the football and attack downfield in the passing game. The results were not what they were hoping for, but they did have players on their roster to make it work — especially at the running back spot.
New England had a potent one-two punch in Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, with Ty Montgomery as an experienced receiving back alongside them. Additionally, they invested a pair of draft picks in Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris to round out the group together with practice squadder J.J. Taylor.
On paper, the group was quite solid. However, injuries to Harris and Montgomery as well as the inexperience of rookies Strong Jr. and Harris led to a unit that was powered primarily by Stevenson: he finished the season as the Patriots’ No. 1 ball-carrier and No. 1 pass-catcher.
Heading into the offseason, Stevenson will still be a focal point to build around; he is pretty good, after all. However, New England might have some potential to add to its current group of players.
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 25 | Signed through 2024
- Ty Montgomery II: 30 | Signed through 2023
- Pierre Strong Jr.: 24 | Signed through 2025
- Kevin Harris: 22 | Signed through 2025
- J.J. Taylor: 25 | Signed through 2023
While Stevenson is locked into a virtual starting spot entering 2023, the rest of the group consists of several question marks. How will Montgomery look coming off season-ending shoulder injury? Can Strong Jr. and Harris build on some good stretches of play and make the famous second-year jump? Will Taylor ever be anything more than an emergency option?
Adding to these questions is the fact that New England’s co-RB1 from a year ago is headed for unrestricted free agency:
- Damien Harris (UFA): Free agency profile
The Patriots’ internal evaluations will determine how they view the running back spot this spring; it is entirely possibly they feel confident with what they have on their roster even if Harris departs.
Nonetheless, if additions are to be mad free agency might be the way to go to support the young group. With that said, let’s take a look at some potential free agency targets for the Patriots.
D’Onta Foreman (UFA): Foreman is entering free agency after the most productive season of his career; he had 940 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns for the Carolina Panthers. While the team will likely be interested in bringing him back, the Patriots might also be in play given that the 26-year-old got his NFL start with New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in Houston.
Leonard Fournette (UFA): The Patriots already took a look at Fournette last offseason, when they brought him in for a workout but he eventually decided to return to Tampa Bay. Could second time be the charm? It’s possible given that the 28-year-old is still a productive player who has developed into a dual-threat back who has shown that he can be a productive receiver as well.
Ty Johnson (UFA): The Patriots love tapping into their division to find free agency targets, and Johnson would be a realistic target. While the 25-year-old has never emerged past role player status with the Detroit Lions and, most recently, New York Jets, he could fill a rotational role in New England’s backfield and help out on special teams.
Ronald Jones II (UFA): His one-year stint in Kansas City was a quiet one, as was his final year in Tampa Bay. Jones is still just two years removed from back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and at age 25 might have some rebound potential — potential that likely comes at a small price.
Alexander Mattison (UFA): Mattison saw his opportunities decrease in Year 1 under new Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, but make no mistake: he can be a productive player in a committee backfield. A change of scenery might therefore be best for him.
Jerick McKinnon (UFA): McKinnon is entering free agency off a bounce-back season of sorts that saw him register 895 total yards from scrimmage for the world-champion Chiefs. While he is more than capable as a ball-carrier, his value might lie in the passing game: he caught 61 passes for 544 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022.
Raheem Mostert (UFA): We already mentioned stealing from division rivals above, and the Miami Dolphins might be another team to keep an eye on. With their salary cap position not exactly ideal, the team might have a hard time retaining all of its free agents — including the versatile Mostert, who had 1,093 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns last year.
Rashaad Penny (UFA): Even though he never lived up to his first-round status in Seattle, the Patriots could have an eye on Penny. They do love their reclamation projects, and the 27-year-old would fit that mold. His value in the passing game is nonexistent but he might help take some pressure off of Rhamondre Stevenson on early downs.
Samaje Perine (UFA): Perine has come into his own as the Bengals’ RB2 behind Joe Mixon, and offers a well-rounded skillset. He’s neither the most powerful runner nor the most dynamic receiver, but he can very well be a solid contributor on offense and special teams.
Devin Singletary (UFA): If the Patriots indeed want to go to the division well, Singletary appears to be a lead candidate. He put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, is a good runner and receiver, and still only 25 years old. The Buffalo Bills re-signing him is an option, but the team’s limited salary cap space might stand in the way of those plans. If so, New England bringing him in to take over for Damien Harris would make sense.
Darrel Williams (UFA): His one-year stint in Arizona was a disappointment, and with a new regime taking over in Arizona it seems Williams leaving is likely. The Patriots adding him to their backfield as a versatile option would be possible in that scenario.
Jeff Wilson Jr. (UFA): Wilson Jr. is in a similar boat as Raheem Mostert above; he had a productive first (half-)season in Miami but there are questions whether or not the Dolphins will really retain him. All signs point to yes, but if he becomes available New England might be over him: his still only 27 and has value as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
This year’s free agency running back class might lack any serious star power, but there are some intriguing players available nonetheless. This means that while retaining Harris might be the Patriots’ priority, they do have options to replace him as well — and to possible find a new receiving back to challenge Ty Montgomery and Pierre Strong Jr. in that role.