As NFL Draft season is nearly upon us along with the end of the regular season almost upon us, it is time to potentially start looking beyond 2016 at the running back position. This season, the Patriots have had a resurgent year in the run offense category with LeGarrette Blount leading the way with his league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. Not to mention pass-catching backs James White and Dion Lewis also proving to be weapons in the high-scoring Patriots offense. But this unit could look much different next season and we will take a look at how the depth chart could be different in 2017.
At the end of the 2016 season, current Patriot running back Blount, Brandon Bolden, James Develin and D.J. Foster are all slated to be free agents. All will be unrestricted free agents as well except for Foster, who will be an exclusive rights free agent. That means the Patriots only have two running backs, White and Lewis, signed for the 2017 season. With Foster as an exclusive rights free agent after the season, it’s not crazy to think that the team could re-sign him. So we can potentially add Foster to this mix as well.
For Blount, he will be 30 years old before the beginning of the 2017 season and while he is having a terrific season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to wonder if the Patriots want to commit to him beyond this season. Blount will likely see some attention around the league in free agency due to his terrific 2016 season, which is another factor to keep in mind as well. For Bolden, he is strictly a special teams player for the most part and provides little to nothing in either the rushing or receiving offense. He has been inconsistent this season on special teams, so he may also not be back next season as well. But if he was, it likely would be in his strictly special teams role.
Looking at the free agency market, it has quite a few notable running backs who are currently slated to be free agents after this season. The most notable is Le’Veon Bell. He is not only by far the best running back in this free agency class, he may be the best running class in the NFL. It’s fair to say the Steelers will make a very concerted effort to re-sign Bell and has by far the best chance of signing him to contract of any team. There is a very slim chance Bell is on another team come 2017 at this point. Looking beyond him, Eddie Lacy, Latavius Murray, Isaiah Crowell, Jacquizz Rodgers and Terrance West are also free agents after this season as well.
Lacy, Rodgers and Murray are all going to be unrestricted free agents while Crowell and West will be restricted free agents. All five of these players have at some point started in at least one game during the 2016 season with Lacy currently on injured reserve. Lacy could definitely be looking for another team after the season due to his injury and his poor play/results over the past two season. He’d be an interesting name for the Patriots who can function as a one-cut, power runner capable of handling lead back responsibilities. Rodgers is currently the Buccaneers number three running back and likely won’t be a big priority for the Bucs to re-sign in the off-season. West is currently splitting work with impressive rookie Kenneth Dixon and may not be brought back by Baltimore if they move forward with Dixon as their starter. Crowell and Murray are both starters for their respective teams and have a decent shot at their teams wanting to re-sign them.
But beyond the free agency market, the 2017 NFL Draft will feature one of the strongest running back classes in recent memory. As it stands right now, CBS Sports has 10 running backs projected to be picked in the first three rounds of the draft. Some of those players, such as Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, are likely not going to be available for the Patriots when they are on the clock in the first round. But players like Christian McCaffrey (who is popular name when talking about possible running backs the Patriots should look at), D’Onta Freeman and Samaje Perine could be ones that the Patriots could look at if they were planning on taking a running back in the first two rounds of the draft.
McCaffrey has been a terrific three-way player at Stanford over the past two seasons, performing like an elite player in the rushing, receiving and return game. In that time-span, McCaffrey has rushed for 3,622 yards and accumulated 955 receiving yards to go with 29 touchdowns from scrimmage. That’s not even including his upcoming bowl game as well. The Patriots have shown to favor players who are capable of being flexible in what they can play and McCaffrey has shown he is dynamic in all three phases. He has shown the ability to handle work-horse responsibilities while being able to play all three downs and function as a primary returner on special teams as well. In theory, McCaffrey could be the most exciting fit just because of how many different ways he could be used.
Freeman is another interesting name to ponder about. He leads the FBS in rushing yards (2,028) while being tied for second in rushing attempts (323) while finishing with 15 rushing touchdowns on the season. At 6’1″, 249 lbs, Freeman is a player that might be the best fit for the Patriots. They currently run a power running offense with fellow big back Blount (6’0″, 250 lbs), who is third in the NFL with 230 rushing attempts so far. Freeman doesn’t contribute much in the receiving game but he is very difficult to bring down and plays with brute force. He almost resembles a younger Blount in their size and running styles, so he could definitely be someone to look at for the Patriots come draft time.
If he declares for the draft, Perine is running back prospect for the Patriots to look into. He is in relatively the same mold as Freeman at 5’11”, 239 lbs. Perine also plays with a physical style of running but is perhaps a little more agile than Freeman. He too does not contribute much in the receiving game and was limited to mostly early down situations while giving way to Joe Mixon on passing downs at times. Perine also has a little more experience as a lead back as opposed to Freeman, who has one season under his belt as a true starter. Unlike McCaffrey and Freeman, Perine has not announced his intentions for beyond this season. But considering he is being projected as a top 10 running back prospect in this draft class, it would not be surprising for him to declare.
One more name to throw out there is Pittsburgh running back James Conner. Conner of course, is well known for being diagnosed with and beating cancer before returning to play in 2016. While he is having a “down year” (1,060 yards, 16 touchdowns) this season compared to 2014 (1,765 yards, 26 touchdowns), Conner has had a very impressive 2016. While he did beat cancer, he also came back from a torn MCL as well. At 6’2″, 235 lbs, Conner is known for his aggressive running style and how well he functions as an “inside-the-tackles” back. In his last two full seasons (2014 and 2016), Conner has had over 500 rushing attempts, clearly showing that he can handle a full work-load. Conner is currently projected by most as a day three pick right now simply due to the depth of this class and may choose to return to Pitt for another season. But if he doesn’t, he’s someone the Patriots could look at on early day three.
Overall, the Patriots are likely going to be doing a lot of work between now and the NFL Draft in regards to figuring out how to handle their running back situation moving forward. There are certainly options in free agency along with the NFL Draft if they decide to change up the depth chart, so the pool is not lacking viable players for the Patriots to look at. With how well their offense has been this season with a solid run game, it’s likely that the team will look to keep the run game a focus on offense and make sure they are well-equipped to keep it going. No matter how they approach this situation, it’ll be very interesting to watch over the next few months.