Sunday, March 13, 2016

Free Agency Vs. NFL Draft - Possibilities For The Patriots At Running Back

Trying to project what New England Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick will do in the offseason to build his team to an elite level is an exercise in futility - and since he doesn't have a first round pick to ponder, that makes it even less likely that anyone will figure out what he's going to do.

But we can try, as his best bet for an immediate impact player may be in free agency, while his M.O. with rookies coming in through the draft process is to bring them along slowly and let them learn from the veterans.

That said, and with there being needs at weakside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and for a swing tackle on the offensive line and perhaps an outside the numbers press corner (which varies wildly depending on who you talk to) there figures to be a combination of tenured veterans and raw rookie talent finding their way to Foxborough in the next six weeks.

Today: Running backs

In the AFC Championship game back in January, the New England Patriots offense sputtered like a lawnmower going uphill on wet grass until midway through the fourth quarter, when all of a sudden a light went on and their passing game became unstoppable.
Razorbacks' Jonathan Williams

Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for the Patriots, as curious decision making combined with un-Patriots' like errors and a leaky offensive line had reduced quarterback Tom Brady to a twitching mass of anxiety.

But that's what happens when you don't have a running game.

Without a running game, what happened to the Patriots in the AFC Title tilt is exactly what could be expected, as the Broncos loaded up the box and came after Brady like sharks in a feeding frenzy, giving him precious little time to make his read and throw the ball. The line had no chance of holding up under such overwhelming numbers, and many of Brady's throws were simply to get rid of the ball, overthrowing a few and throwing at his receivers' feet other times.

The problem of becoming one-dimensional on offense had it's genesis in week nine when dynamic scatback Dion Lewis tore his ACL in a game against the Washington Redskins, but became a full-blown issue when power back LeGarrette Blount suffered a season-ending hip injury in week fourteen. The promotion of rookie load Joey Iosefa from the practice squad looked to be a decent solution to a backfield that had just Brandon Bolden to run between the tackles...

...curiously, however, Iosefa was released after the week fifteen matchup with the Titans and was relegated back to the practice squad once he cleared waivers. The move was made to make room for unemployed power back Steve Jackson, who took some snaps the following week, but proved to be nothing like the dominant big back that he was earlier in his career.

As a result, the Patriots were stopped cold on the ground by the Jets and Dolphins to close out the regular season - two losses that ended up giving the homefield advantage to the Broncos - followed by a narrow win over the Chiefs in the divisional round in which New England ran the ball a grand total of seven times, then just 14 times in the gut-retching loss to Denver.

That is called abandoning the running game, and it has no place in Patriots' football.

To avoid getting locked into another circumstance like that, it was generally speculated that Belichick was going to target a running back in free agency, the draft, or both - but the first three days of free agency have dragged by like dead animals and nary a running back has been added to the Patriots' roster despite a glut of decent runners on the wire.

But the Patriots actually need a certain type of runner. They are already well stocked with passing backs, as Dion Lewis and James White are now proven commodities, the need is for a power back, preferably one who is good in pass protection, has reliable hands in the pattern, but can blast through the line and pick up the tough yards up the middle in the running game.

That job has been handled by plodder LeGarrette Blount for the past couple of seasons, his success actually greeted with indifference by many fans because he running style is about as exciting as watching syrup running off of waffles - but the truth is that he has been and can still be highly effective in this offense.

Though it may not seem like it, Blount averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season, this after averaging 4.9 in limited action in 2014 and 5.0 splitting duties with Stevan Ridley the season before that - not bad for a one-cut downhill runner who has next to no lateral agility, which may be exasperated and diminished ever further due to the hip injury that ended his season four games short last year.

So it would make sense that Belichick would at least explore the possibility of another power back, especially since Blount is an unrestricted free agent and is no guarantee to re-sign with the team - though there have been reports of mutual interest in doing so - but with four of the top five free agent backs already off the radar, the team's options are limited to lower-tiered veteran talent or the draft.

Of the veteran talent available, Green Bay free agent James Stark has been to Foxborough for a cup of coffee with Belichick, the 6' 2", 220 pound load leaving without an offer from the team, but he is more of a complementary back, not the grinder that the Patriots need - but there are still some of those floating around free agency limbo.

Redskins' bell cow Alfred Morris had his worst statistical season of his career last season, failing to top 1000 yards for the first time in his career, an anomaly considering his great success in his first three seasons, but word is the Redskins are actively trying to make a deal to keep him. Same goes for Tim Hightower of the Saints. Neither player has had much of a market thus far, not surprising since they are all substance with little flash...

...which is exactly what the Patriots need - a no nonsense, one cut downhill runner. But since both the 'Skins and Saints are seeking to re-sign their backs, there is but one wildcard back still out there that could be just what the running game begs for, and is at the very least worth a cup of coffee.

Robert Turbin spent the first three years of his career backing up Beast Mode in Seattle, averaging 4.3 yards per carry while averaging just around 75 carries and 12 receptions per season with the Seahawks. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the third preseason game for the Seahawks last season and was waived with an injury settlement.

He was picked up by Cleveland, but still was not fully healed and ended up finishing the season in Dallas. Now fully healthy after platooning with Darren McFadden for the final few games of 2015, Turbin and his violent running style are still available on the open market. Turbin has the bulk at 5' 10", 225 to thump a few skulls between the tackles, but also has light feet and can make sharp cuts to allude tacklers.

But if none of these guys excite Belichick, there's always the draft, where one back awaits that has New England written all over him.

Derrick Henry is an absolute load, and his draft profile says all Patriots' fans need to know - "Bell-cow running back with the ability to strap on a feed bag and eat for four quarters." Belichick has not had a running back with his size, 6' 3" and 247 pounds, and raw talent since the glory days of balance with Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon.

And he's bigger and faster than them both.

Henry even addressed his two biggest flaws, according to the experts, at his pro day, which was attended by Belichick - he lined up at different positions, including split wide, and caught several passes from teammate Jake Coker to rebut the feeling among the experts that he wasn't a natural receiver, and at the same time showed off some sharp cuts to demonstrate elusiveness.

But he needn't have bothered, because what Henry is, is what the Patriots need most.

Rated at the same level as Henry is Indiana's Jordan Howard, who at 6' 0" and 230 pounds punished the second and third levels at throughout the Big 12. In fact, if Belichick were looking for a back that has already demonstrated lateral agility, optimal vision and steady work between the tackles, Howard may be a better all around running back.

Unlike Henry, however, Howard runs upright and takes some massive shots to his frame and as a result, has spent some time on the trainer's table. There are concerns about his style from the experts, who feel that his upright running is going to cause him to spend more time on the sidelines and less griding down the clock.

Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon is another player who has incurred injury due to his running style, but not because he runs to upright, rather, he initiates contact on the second and third levels and runs through defenders. He finishes runs and does not go out of bounds, seeming to enjoy a little contact with safeties and corners.

Devontae Booker is a bit of a different runner from the first three on this list, as he is a patient back with excellent vision and has an explosive cut into the hole once he sees it forming, and has ankle-breaking moves on the second level. The 5'11". 220 pound Runnin' Ute is right on the edge of how NFL scouts see power backs in terms of size, but the talent is apparent and obvious.

There are two backs from Arkansas that could be considered good fits for the Patriots' running game. Alex Collins is the better known name of the two, but his battery mate Jonathan Williams may be the more complete back.

Collins is pure power, a one-speed, one-cut north and south runner, but that might not be enough for Collins to be truly considered as there is just a small body of work in regard to receiving, which isn't necessarily a red flag in this offense, but when combined with poor pass protection technique, that doesn't translate to a three-down power back in Foxborough...

...while Williams is an instinctive slasher, who carries a power back size - he's excellent in the pattern and is a willing blocker in blitz pick up. Collins will be selected before Williams because there are questions about how healthy Williams is, after missing the entire 2015 season with a foot injury that required surgery.

That said, we have Williams as one of the Patriots' third round draft picks in our first mock draft of the offseason.

There are others, obviously, and the scenarios are as plentiful as yards and points when the Patriots offense is running full bore - but with a very specific need in mind for the Patriots, it looks like they either will trade up to snag Henry or go with one of the aforementioned Bell-cow backs...

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