It’s the height of summer in New England. The Red Sox are getting ready to play the second half with dreams of October baseball. The summer haze and coolers of beer allowed football to suddenly creep up again.
Incredibly enough, Patriots rookies are only eight days away from reporting to their first summer camp practice. Veterans report three days later on July 27. That means only 11 days until Rob Gronkowski plays football again. No wonder he danced so hard at Fenway with Paul McCartney Sunday night.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 18, 2016
I will be writing a Patriots preview for most — if not all — positions this season. It will be a quick synopsis of some of the strengths and weaknesses in each position group, and how some roster battles may unfold.
Football is cutthroat. Up to 90 players can be invited to preseason camp. Only 53 remain at the end of cuts and 37 players will be out of a job by camp’s end. In total, there are 2,880 players are trying out for 1,696 roster spots.
— AFC East Daily (@AFCEastDaily) July 12, 2016
Running back was a volatile position for New England in 2015. At the beginning of the year all of the news was about replacing Shane Vereen’s production. He would be quickly forgotten.
Dion Lewis Excels in First Year
Dion Lewis burst onto the scene last year with production leaps and bounds above expectation. He immediately established himself as the Vereen replacement, showcasing incredible speed and shiftiness in open space. Lewis had one of the most incredible runs by a Patriots running back in years against the Cowboys last year:
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) October 11, 2015
Lewis returns from a torn ACL in 2016. Anytime an athlete that pivots and cuts as much as Dion Lewis has a knee injury, it’s certainly concerning. The technology for ACL repairs continues to improve as the years go on. Hopefully he can be 100 percent and ready to go for a full season.
Lewis will likely serve as Brady’s passing down back. He also possesses the ability to run the football. He should see the rock more than often this year if he stays healthy. Belichick may start him off with a lighter work load to keep his knee healthy.
Bruising Blount Back for Another Year
— Pro Football Weekly (@PFWeekly) April 13, 2016
Blount may be a bruiser, but many forget he is also recovering from injury. A hip injury put him out for the year late in the regular season. Some fans wondered if they had seen the last of the Blount.
Belichick decided to bring the big back for another run in 2016 with a very team friendly deal, one year, $760,000. John Breitenbach of Pro Football Focus called it one of the best running back deals of the off-season, “Blount is among the league’s most bruising backs when he is on form; last year, he broke 34 tackles on just 165 carries, ending the season with a 77.1 rushing grade. If they can all remain healthy in 2016, New England will have an outstanding stable of running backs.”
Despite only playing in 12 games, Blount lead the Patriots with 703 rushing yards last season. A testament to just how medically hampered New England was this past season.
If Blount is healthy, he serves as the Patriots downhill bruiser doing most of his work on earlier downs due to Lewis’ incredible open field talent.
Bolden and White: Second Tier of RB’s
Decleated. Brutalized. https://t.co/mrSx2vi9QU
— Sheev Palpatine fan (@BrettPats) July 10, 2016
Video evidence of special team success like this might be exactly what ends James White’s run in New England. Both Brandon Bolden and James White appeared serviceable in their time with the ball last season. Neither back was especially better than the other except for one important factor: special teams.
Bolden has the advantage of being a special teams performer. Many project him to be a core special teamer again in 2016. While White may have had a slightly better season, Bolden holds the advantage of playing multiple positions, allowing Belichick to maximize space on his 53 man roster.
Right now it appears more than likely James White ends up on the roster. However, if he doesn’t perform in camp we may see a new number two receiving back behind Dion Lewis in 2016.
On the Bubble
Tom Brady working with RBs Brandon Bolden, Donald Brown, DJ Foster pic.twitter.com/17vEE9NMGW
— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) May 26, 2016
After the veteran backs, it’s going to come down to the battles in camp. James White is most likely to lose his job. Blount would likely only be out if he drops to the IR. This leaves little room for players like Donald Brown, D.J. Foster, and Tyler Gaffney.
Brown is an older back who has struggled to excel after an excellent college career. He isn’t a bruiser like Blount, he’s more of a receiving back. He would likely be challenging White and Foster.
Foster is a very interesting player. He had a ton of production at Arizona State as a running back. In his senior season, Foster mostly played as a slot receiver. Before the position change he was considered to be a dual threat that could both run the rock and catch the ball. Foster’s ability to play multiple positions gives him an advantage over other backs.
At 6-feet, 220 pounds, Gaffney packs a punch. Since being drafted in 2014, he has yet to make an impact at the pro level. He was an exceptional running back at Stanford but can’t seem to shake the injury bug. This is likely his last shot with the Patriots. If Blount cannot perform due to injury or other factors, Gaffney may have a great opportunity in front of him.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) June 25, 2016
The Patriots two main backs are nursing season ending injuries from 2015. James White and Brandon Bolden both gained valuable experience due to the injured starters.
With a healthy offensive line and four experienced running backs, it would make most sense to bring back both Bolden and White in 2016. With that being said, White needs to perform in camp with Brown and Foster breathing down his neck.
Due to his inconsistency and age, it’s likely Brown misses the roster. Gaffney will also be an odd man out unless he performs exceptionally well and Blount comes out of the gates slow. Foster is a likely practice squad candidate and a fine one at that.
The Patriots have a solid group of running backs that provide a wide array of skill sets to Bill Belichick’s arsenal. Once again the only deterrent to success would be injury.