Patriots Draft Prospects: Running Back
One position that the Patriots may look to address in the draft is running back. One of the biggest blows that the Patriots suffered this offseason was the loss of Dion Lewis in free agency. The dynamic tailback had the ability to play all three downs and was adept in the passing game as well. The Patriots are certainly not depleted at the position. Former Super Bowl hero James White is returning, as well as Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead who had an injury-plagued but solid first year in New England. The Patriots also signed former Bengal Jeremy Hill to a one-year deal in the offseason. (Brandon Bolden is also technically a running back but his role on the team is almost entirely on special teams).
Despite their depth at the position, the Patriots could look to bring in some young talent to the running back-by-committee. Gillislee was a near bust last season, and Hill is an unproven commodity, so a talented back that has the ability to develop alongside White and Burkhead could set up New England nicely for the future.
The Patriots are also benefited by the fact that, outside of Saquon Barkley, running backs are receiving almost no attention from many draft projections. With quarterback, linebacker, and edge rusher dominating the focus around the league, there could be some highly talented running backs still on the board in the later rounds of the draft. The last few years have seen running backs slide down the draft board much lower than many analysts projected, which could benefit the Patriots considering the large gap they have between the third and the sixth round.
Sony Michel from the University of Georgia is one option that the Patriots could choose to explore with one of their second-round picks. In his senior season, the former Bulldog ran for 1227 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns. While he was not a significant target in the passing game during his senior season, Michel did catch 64 balls for over 600 yards throughout his four-year career in Athens. At 5’11, 220 lbs, Michel is a powerful runner who has little fear dropping his shoulder into oncoming defenders. He is a strong north-south runner who has good vision on inside runs. He is not as elusive of a runner as Patriots fans have been used to with White and Dion Lewis, but he understands how to use his lead blockers, which is an excellent trait to have alongside guard Shaq Mason and fullback James Develin. Michel is also a fantastic run blocker, with an innate understanding of blitz pickup. While he is not a particularly dangerous pass catcher, he has enough experience to force teams to respect his ability out of the backfield.
Nick Chubb is an interesting option available as well. The Georgia Bulldog was an elite runner before severely injuring his knee in his sophomore season. He fought back to have impressive junior and senior seasons, rushing for 1130 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016 and 1345 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. Chubb is a strong runner who lacks elusiveness both behind the line of scrimmage and in the open field. His success comes from quick decision making and good upfield momentum. Due to his injury history and his lack of significant explosiveness, Chubb may slide down the board to the point where the Patriots could select him in the third round.
Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn is one of my favorite backs in the Draft. The 6’0 212 lb junior is a grinding runner who never stops churning his feet. His ability to break tackles and power through interior runs helped him accrue over 1300 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2017. Johnson is also an adept pass catcher, finishing last season with 24 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He is a fun player to watch, as he puts his all into every run and refuses to go down until he has fought for every last inch that he can. He is also an impressive blocker, which is a key part of the Patriots offense. One of the biggest concerns that scouts have expressed with Johnson is that his smaller frame may not be able to stand up to a full workload as an NFL running back. However, that issue is negated with the Patriots because of their fluid rotation of running backs. Johnson would not be carrying the ball 20-30 times a game, which would save his body from quick deterioration. While it is sometimes an overrated factor, Johnson played against higher competition than some of the other backs in this draft. In the 2017 season, he faced five top-10 teams, including some of the best defenses in college football with Alabama, Georgia, and Clemson.
Mark Walton is the most unknown prospect that you’ll read about, but probably the most likely to become a Patriot. The former Miami Hurricane is a more compact player at 5’10 188 lbs. He is one of the most elusive running backs in the draft this year, with incredibly quick cuts and good vision. Walton has an uncanny ability to make lanes for himself when blocking breaks down in front of him. He has had impressive success catching the football, as he has shown an ability to create space against linebackers and has receiver-esque hands. He is also not afraid to handle blitz pick up. Walton’s biggest issues come from hesitancy and indecisiveness on inside runs. He has a tendency to look to bounce his runs to the edge, which would not be nearly as successful against NFL-level defenders who seal the edge well and swarm to the ball quicker. Walton reminds me a lot of James White and former Patriots running backs Dion Lewis and Shane Vereen. In fact, he has many similar traits to all three of those players. While he is undersized, he is an elusive running back who can be used on all three downs. The lack of respect for running backs in this draft will also push Walton way down the draft board and could be an extremely valuable later round pick.
Running back may seem like an unlikely position for New England to draft because they have consistently relied on multiple backs working in a committee. However, New England’s draft history, combined with the heavily saturated running back market, make this draft an ideal one for the Patriots to add depth at the position. In 2011 the Patriots drafted both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley despite having an already overcrowded backfield with Kevin Faulk, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, and Danny Woodhead. In 2014 the team drafted James White despite having Ridley, Vereen, and LeGarrette Blount. In both cases, the Patriots were entering a year where they had established running backs who were entering the end of their Patriots careers due to age or free agency. They drafted young running backs to work in the committee system and develop behind these veterans, rather than be thrown right in as starters. While James White and Rex Burkhead will be here for the next few seasons, Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillislee will not be here longer than this year and the value of running back that the Patriots could find in the late rounds may make it an ideal time for them to replenish the position.