Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blount testing waters; Patriots keeping "open dialogue" in hopes of his return

New England Patriots' unrestricted free agent running back LeGarrette Blount is taking visits with at least two other teams this coming week in his quest for - well - that's a question to be pondered by fans of both the 250 pound power back and the three teams involved as they await word on where he will hang his hat this coming season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have expressed their desire to meet with Blount, though both have established bell cows already on the roster.

There has been no public word at all from the Patriots since the end of the 2013 season, but in the weeks prior to the AFC Championship Game disaster both Blount and team management expressed mutual interest in bringing Blount's imposing running style back to Foxborough - and it has been reported that the Patriots have maintained an open dialogue with him since the offseason process began.

Blount was scheduled to meet with the Steelers on Sunday, however the scheduled meeting has been pushed back until next Friday so that Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert can attend the annual NFL Meeting.

"I’ll stop short of saying ‘have to,’ but we need to add quality depth to that position, whether it’s through free agency or the draft,” Tomlin told reporters on Sunday. “Le’Veon Bell is a talented player but a young player. It would be good to get a been-there, done-that type of guy in the room to maybe help him with growth and development. But I don’t view it as a necessity, quite honestly, because Le’Veon is a very grounded and humble young man and is open to getting better, and is a good listener.”

With a sense of urgency to get Blount under contract to be found nowhere among any parties involved, and the fact that the Patriots are keeping communication lines open with the Oregon product, the situation smacks of the Julian Edelman free agency experiment...

...where the Patriots expressed interest and made sure that he knew that he had a home in Foxborough should that be where his heart led him, then turned him loose to test the market - or as is said on the trading floor of the stock market, to let the market set the price that the Patriots would have to pay to retain him.

Edelman generated little interest, confirming the thought amongst experts that he would be viewed as a better fit for the Patriots' scheme than anywhere else - and considering that while the market is decidedly different for receivers than it is for running backs, the same school of though exists for Blount.

The Ravens' interest is probably that of a short-term roster fill in the event that Ray Rice's sudden and extreme fall from grace lands the tenured veteran running back in the commissioner's doghouse, but in a back up role to Rices' capable protege Bernard Pierce - and the interest from the Steelers is probably that of a back up to the similarly styled Le'Veon Bell...

...which makes little sense given that most draft profiles on the rookie runner compared him to Blount, but with better hands coming out of the backfield and into the pattern.

In the end, Blount's best fit is with the team that traded for him at draft time last offseason - though he has his share of detractors among the fan base and media, which is baffling.

To some, he was little more than a back that had a couple of good games at the end of the season, more or less by default as the Patriots' passing game had stagnated due to injury - and to some he was a revelation as he was able to spell fumble-prone lead back Stevan Ridley - but, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in between the two.

Blount is probably never going to be a heavy fantasy football producer, though his 772 yards on just shy of a third of the Patriots' total rushing plays suggests that he could be, given bell cow responsibility - but he's just not going to find that anywhere, not even in New England where he would be splitting carries with Ridley, who logged 773 yards.

Blount's biggest contribution to the team, however, is in the four minute offense.

Bill Belichick has long been known as one of the most aggressive play callers in the league when it comes to protecting a lead, to the point that calling it such is an inappropriate misnomer.  Often confused with blatantly running up the score, Belichick's teams routinely put the ball in the hands of his best playmakers, who up until this past season was quarterback Tom Brady throwing to the 99% sure-handed Wes Welker.

With Welker's departure coupled with the uncertainty surrounding every other play maker on the offense in some manner or another, Blount provided Belichick what he desires most from the position - a big battering ram that gets every yard available - and often more than that - giving Brady some welcome confidence and flexibility in check-downs.

And when things got dicey with injuries toward the end of the regular season and all the Patriots could muster for pass catchers was the less than imposing lineup of Edelman, a clearly hobbled Danny Amendola and concussion-in-waiting Austin Collie, the Patriots had no choice but to turn to the running game...

...and the combination of Blount and Ridley rotating on a series-to-series basis laid waste to three consecutive opponents before running into a Broncos defense in the AFC Championship game that was hell-bent on taking away the Patriots' running game at the expense of Brady going off on their depleted secondary.

Of course, the Broncos' game plan worked to perfection as Brady's lack of weapons down the field enabled the Broncos to stack the box and transformed the entire New England offense to no more than a group of  helpless bystanders.

Regardless, that one game - important as it was - turned out to be more about the Patriots' rendered one-dimensional by injuries in the receiving corps and the Broncos taking advantage of it, and should be considered the rare exception rather than the rule.

But for the folks that still maintain that LeGarrette Blount's late season performance was a flash in the pan, one only has to look at his body of work throughout the season, sporadic as it was early, but always in the mindset of the four minute offense:

In week three against the Buccaneers, Blount carried eight times for 56 yards on the final Patriots' final drive of the game- leading the offense from their own 29 yard line to the Tampa 11, and running off 4:41 of the game clock while he was at it...

...picking up where he left off the following week at Atlanta, chugging for a 47 yard touchdown to close out the scoring for the Patriots, then was on his way to a big game in Cincinnati the week after that before a midfield fumble got him benched in favor of Brandon Bolden - offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels all but abandoning the run after that and making Brady a sitting duck in a monsoonal rainstorm as the Patriots suffered their first loss of the season.

After spending a couple of games in Belichick's doghouse for wayward fumblers, Blount was called upon again to close out a tight game against the Dolphins in Foxborough, getting seven touches and making them count for 42 yards as the Patriots moved from their own 11 yard line all the way to paydirt on a Ridley short touchdown run to seal that win.

The perpetually underused Blount followed up that performance by hammering the Steelers for 47 yards on just five carries in a Patriots' rout, and then 49 yards on ten carries in a loss to the Panthers where the spectre of terrible play calling on the part of McDaniels again limited the running game.

Knocked cold in the Broncos game and fumbling the ball (along with everyone else), which started a four game stretch in which the Patriots offense struggled to find an identity - always bad news late in the season, but was brought about by necessity with the receivers all dropping like flies, the running game an afterthought as the Patriots fell behind in each game and then was forced to the air...

...a bad loss to Miami perhaps the final straw for the desperately wounded Patriots' passing game as the powerful running game was finally featured when McDaniels ran out of options, Blount hammering Baltimore and Buffalo to end the regular season and finishing off Indianapolis in the divisional round of the playoffs.

In those three games, Blount amassed 431 of the Patriots' 643 rushing yards - at a clip of 6.5 yards per carry - and scored eight touchdowns.  Of course, the totals were aided by a couple of long touchdown runs, so proper perspective must be given, though he still averaged well over five yards per carry otherwise.

Everything fell apart in Denver the following week as Brady and Belichick found themselves being manhandled by a Broncos' defensive gameplan that took away the run, and New England had nothing to counter with - and the Broncos knew it.

Regardless, with playoffs included, Blount ran for 946 yards in 177 carries for a stellar 5.3 yards per carry and scored 11 times - and added 531 yards on kick returns - a fairly obvious testament to LeGarrette Blount's value to the Patriots despite being underused for three quarters of the season...

...the last quarter of the season proving that Blount gets stronger and more effective the more touches he gets, something that perhaps McDaniels and Belichick learned through expereince - and should they have the proper offer in place to bring him back, hopefully they will incorporate him and the entire running game into the game plan a little more going forward.

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