Monday, February 13, 2017

Reloading The Musket, Part 2 - White, Lewis Part of Patriots' 2017 Plans, But Is Blount?

Before the season started, James White was an afterthought in most fans' minds.

And why not?  After all, it was Dion Lewis who had the sick moves in the open field and the power to run up the middle in the ground game, and the media was speculating whether the Wisconsin product would even make the roster - which is preposterous, but the effect Lewis had on the fan base and media alike rendered White nearly invisible.

But even once it was determined that Lewis would start the season on the PUP list, White still got little love from either, and every running back that had been cut by another team in trimming down to fifty-three was rumored to be on his way to Foxborough, since Lewis wasn't available and power back LeGarrette Blount also had his share of detractors.

Why, there was even talk that former Tennessee Titan runner Bishop Sankey would be promoted from New England's practice squad and lay waste to the efforts of White and Blount.

That all seems so long ago, and such a silly waste of time.

Blount, of course, went on a power surge that saw him finish with career highs in both carries and yardage gained, also leading the entire National Football League in rushing touchdowns with 18 - while White caught 60 balls, good for number two on the team behind perennial ball hog Julian Edelman.

Lewis came off the PUP in week eleven, but in seven games played didn't display the athleticism and video game style moves that made him such a sensation before ripping his knee apart midway through last season - so he was used mainly on the ground where he could tough out yardage and left the passing back duties to White.

That Lewis didn't return to form as a human joystick shouldn't have surprised anyone, as he wasn't even a year removed form reconstructive surgery on his knee - nor should it have been a surprise that White didn't just fill in, he took the job from Lewis, and in the Super Bowl, he proved what a valuable weapon he is.

There is no telling what was going through the minds of the Falcons' coaching staff while preparing for the big game, as they game planned to take away the short, easy throws to the Patriots' wide receivers and concentrated on shutting down Blount and Lewis - all the while saying, if someone else beats us, so be it.

White beat them, in the most compelling Super Bowl ever played.

All of New England's backs have dealt with a lack of respect throughout their professional careers.  Blount's problems have been the most publicized - as well as self-induced, punching out a Boise State player after a game when he was at Oregon - going undrafted because of the issue and going through the Titans training camp before ending up with Tampa Bay for his rookie season...

...replaced in Tampa by the Muscle Hamster and benched for pouting, the Bucs shipped him up to Foxborough in 2013 where he immediately became a fan favorite in running for nearly 800 yards on a clip of five yards per carry.

Lewis broke all kinds of records in college at the University of Pittsburgh before declaring early for the NFL draft, then sat behind his former-Panther teammate LeSean McCoy after being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles primarily as a kick returner, traded to the Cleveland Browns after two seasons toiling on the pine...

...breaking his leg in the first preseason game and spent two years waiting for another opportunity - his athleticism sparking the memory of former Eagles and Browns GM Mike Lombardi, who suggested to Belichick that he might be a good fit in his backfield.

But with Blount being a run-only power back and Lewis reduced to work between the tackles because of his bum knee, the Patriots' offense became one-dimensional when they were in the game - or at least limited in their options with the personnel in the backfield as neither added much of a threat to the passing game.

Up until the Super Bowl, the way White had been used in the New England offense rendered them one-dimensional as well.

The Patriots did, however, get him at least one carry in every game but three this season in hopes of keeping the idea of White as a runner in the back of their opponent's minds - but in playoff games against Houston and Pittsburgh, White was barely part of the game plan in either facet, rushing just once for no gain and catching four passes for a meager 27 yards, combined, in both wins...

...then unleashing him in the Super Bowl, coming in a close second to quarterback Tom Brady for MVP honors, gaining 26 yards on six carries and absolutely shredding the Atlanta Falcons in the passing game, catching 14 balls for 110 yards (Both records for a running back), and being accountable for 20 of the Patriots 34 points with three touchdowns and a sweet, direct-snap two-point conversion.

However, it is his game winning, two-yard toss sweep in overtime in which he had to cut hard left and power his way through three Falcons defenders is what should have Patriots' fans excited for this upcoming season.

That was a power move, one that White had rarely shown as a pro, mostly by omission from the game plan as New England has been very vanilla with him - inserting him into games mostly on obvious passing situations, where he has shown not only that he can catch the ball out of the backfield as well as anyone in the league, but also that he may be one of the best in the NFL at picking up blitzers in pass protection.

Both White and Lewis are under contract for 2017, and Blount is on speed dial - plus the team again has signed former Stanford power back Tyler Gaffney to a futures contract - and these circumstances alone would probably be good enough to duplicate the ground attack from 2016, particularly since Lewis is likely to return to full health with a full offseason to aid in his recovery from the knee injury.

But do the Patriots just want to stand pat, so to speak, or will they look to improve their ground game through free agency or the draft?

As far as free agents are concerned, Blount is actually the fourth highest rated running back set to hit the open market, and the options behind him are not that inspirational - with the possible exception of the Colts' Robert Turbin or the Cowboys' Darren McFadden.  The down side to both is that New England's Brandon Bolden is rated above both, and Bolden is seldom used in the Patriots' running attack and is instead a core-four special teams ace.

In fact, the only free agent backs the Patriots have had any positive level of production from in the Belichick era has been Antowain Smith in 2001 and Danny Woodhead in 2010, with Woodhead being the second in long line of Patriots' backs who were elite threats in the passing game.

The draft?  Well, history tells us that New England will draft at least one back, as they did in 2011 (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and in 2014 with James White.  So as Vereen was brought in to continue the tradition that began with Kevin Faulk at the start of the Patriots' dynasty of elite pass catchers out of the backfield, and then was perpetuated by the Woodhead signing, Belichick will probably be looking for an all-purpose back from the college ranks.

Along those same lines, on name keeps popping up as the Patriots look to the draft.

Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had the distinction of being the only FBS player to lead his team in both rushing and receiving in 2015, and broke Barry Sanders' NCAA record for all purpose yardage in 2015 with nearly 4000 yards.  An explosive runner, McCaffrey gets his pedigree from his father, former Broncos' receiver and Patriots' nemesis Ed McCaffrey.

Listed as a late first round prospect, if the Patriots' really want the kid, they have the ammunition to move up or down the board to get him - the same goes for LSU's Leonard Fournette, who is a physical finisher like Blount, but with another level of athleticism.  Florida's Dalvin Cook would be too expensive, draft capital-wise and is a Ridley type who has a ton of moves but lets the ball hit the ground too much for Belichick's taste.

Oklanhoma's Joe Mixon may be the best pure all around runner in the class, but comes with a criminal history that may sour his standing among the powers that be in Foxborough.  Boise State's Jeremy McNichols is more along the lines of White, but with a little more bulk to be a more effective inside runner, and may be attractive as a third round prospect.

A true wildcard in the running back mix is Pittsburgh's James Conner.  Blessed with tremendous size (6' 2", 250) and other-worldly speed (4.65) for a bruising bell cow, Conner was laid low in 2015 with a cancer diagnosis - but showed the heart of a champion, claiming that he "chooses not to fear cancer" and continued to participate in Panther's practices while undergoing chemotherapy.

Fully clear of the malady, Conner returned to the Pitt lineup last season, and has declared himself eleigible for the draft, foregoing his senior year - following in the footsteps of former Panthers McCoy and Lewis to do so.

The options are plentiful for a team that figures to be playing with house money in the draft, having enough capital to move up and down the board as they see fit - and if a talent like McCaffrey. McNichols or Conner come up in a position in which Belichick feels they hold tremendous value, he would most likely pull the trigger on one of them, if not two.

With Blount turning 30 and Lewis having a track record of being injury-prone, it's probably time for New England to look for a bell cow, and to get younger at the position - so look for at least one back coming into the fold in Foxborough via the draft, but don't hold your breath for any free agents to be targeted.

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