Saturday, April 1, 2017

With An Eye To 2018, Patriots Should Look At Running Backs In Draft

Every running back on the New England Patriots' roster has a contract that expires at the end of the 2017 season - and while there is every possibility that one or all three of them are extended or otherwise re-signed, there really isn't a bell cow among them.

And it's not like the Patriots require a bell cow type in their offense, but it's nice to have a big, burly power back that can get you those tough two yards on third down or down near the goal line, and who can do a little clock killing in the four-minute offense.  For the past three seasons, that guy has been LeGarrette Blount, and he has been plenty serviceable in that role, limited as it was by the overall scheme...
Oklahoma's Samaje Perine

...and don't think for a minute that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick doesn't have Blount's cell phone number on his speed dial, as that has been the off-season relationship that he's had with Blount in the past, and didn't sign the 6' 0", 250 pound load until the middle of April last year - and as Blount has expressed a desire to return to Foxborough, not to mention that he hasn't gotten a sniff in free agency, his best bet to land a job is to sit and wait out the draft.

Belichick did pluck a back off the open market when he signed former Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead to a one-year deal in mid-March, but there are two schools of thought on the Nebraska product.  Some see him as another passing back to go along with Dion Lewis and James White, while others see him as a bell cow, with the ability to bruise opposing defenses with his slashing. yet powerful running style.

Certainly, Burkhead will have the opportunity to take over the lead back spot in New England, such as it is, given the fact that Belichick gave him a whopping $3.15 million for the 2017 season, suggesting by the numbers that the Dark Master expects the 5' 10", 210 pound power back to produce as like he did down the stretch for the Bengals last season, carrying the ball 68 times for 305 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and catching 16 balls for 135 yards in the final seven games.

That translates to 155 carries for 700 yards on the ground and 37 catches for 310 yards, which would be pedestrian numbers for the amount of money being paid - and also considering that Blount hammered out 299 carries for the year in a role limited by the pass-first scheme.

Lewis was obviously not 100% when he came off the PUP list in the middle of last season, his video game like moves lost to either his surgically repaired ACL or the paranoia that results from such an injury. Probably, it was little bit of both, but Lewis was used primarily on the ground between the tackles, while White took over as the primary passing back...

...a role previously known as the "Vereen" role, but is now all White's as the Super Bowl hero tightened his grip on the position with a 60 catch season and an astonishing 14 catch Super Bowl for 110 yards - the 14 catches setting a record for the most in a championship game, as did his 20 total points on three touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

Of course, his two-yard, walk-off touchdown run to cap a 31-0 run is now the stuff of Patriots' lore, and probably just a hint of things to come from the Wisconsin product - so one could reasonably expect word of a contract extension coming White's way at some point between now and the end of the season.

Lewis?  That all depends on his mindset coming into the season, and if he regains a measure of his trademark elusiveness - as right now, White is the trusted battery mate of Brady's and Lewis is little more than a very entertaining sideshow that owns the slightly unconscionable "statistic" that the Patriots have won every game that Lewis has played part in, which has added up to 17 games in two seasons, including the playoffs.

And that's the rub on Lewis.  Out of a possible 37 games, Lewis has appeared in only 17 for New England as the ACL tear in the middle of the 2016 season cost him over a full season's worth of games - but a healthy Lewis is indeed a major asset to an offense that is already so loaded that defensive coordinators are reduced to rolling the dice and covering their eyes with each play call.

Everything is in play for the Patriots offense.  Two tight end sets are prevalent no matter the down and distance, and rare is the play when there is not at least one running back on the field as White and Lewis frequently line up split wide in a spread formation, the threat of them being single covered on the outside enough to cause a defense to tip their hand as to coverages when Brady brings one back in motion to the slot or back into the backfield...

...which is why it isn't a huge surprise that Belichick brought in Burkhead, who is a combination back. Burkhead possesses the soft hands, subtle elusiveness and finisher's mentality that has been a staple of the New England offense for years, but has reached a point of refinement with White and Lewis, to the point that the elusive split-back "pony" set can be used, even in a spread.

Based on the aforementioned money involved to bring in Burkhead, Belichick has got to be thinking that he will be heavily in the mix in whatever formation or concept is run, and that given his violent running style will be in line for workhorse duties in the four minute offense - but he is signed for just one season, leading one to believe that this is a one-year "prove it" deal for a guy who hasn't had much of a role during his four seasons in the NFL.

Does that mean that Belichick will be looking to the draft to snag a young power back, or even a passing back, knowing that all three backs on his roster have contracts expiring after this season?

If so, he can forget about the so-called "elite" backs that spot the first two rounds of the draft, names like LSU's Leonard Fournette, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Florida's Dalvin Cook - and they've reportedly already taken Oklahoma's talented-yet-troubled Joe Mixon of their draft board.  They can probably forget about Tennessee's Alvin Kamara as well.

But when the bell rings for the third round, there are a few backs that would fit right into the concept based attack that makes the Patriots' offense such a nightmare to defend.

When Belichick looks at a running back, he does so seeking to satisfy three different criteria, namely, pass protection, versatility and ball security - which narrows the field down considerably when dealing from the middle of the pack.

In fact, that criteria set eliminates such names as Texas' D'Onta Foreman, Boise State's Jeremy McNichols, South Florida's Marlon Mack, Clemson's Wayne Gallman, and North Carolina's T.J. Logan due to coming up short on one or more in the set, leaving just three backs in the middle rounds and a couple in the late rounds that satisfy Belichick's desirable traits, with the top name being Wyoming's Brian Hill.

A slashing downhill runner perfect for a zone blocking scheme, Hill is a 6' 1", 220 pound load with terrific vision to find the cutback lanes and with a strong lower body to push a pile for the extra couple of yards - also a willing pass blocker, he is adept at curling out into the pattern and has soft hands and a subtle elusiveness that wastes no movement...

...while Oklahoma's Samaje Perine is a no-nonsense north-south back with next-to-no subtlety or elusiveness nor an extra gear once he reaches the second level, and doesn't pretend to possess any.  A 5' 11", 235 pound bulldozer who loves to mix it up, Perine also has a softer side - as in, he has soft hands to contribute in the passing game, though his value is as a runner and as an accomplished pick up artist on the blitz.

The same can be said for Pitt's James Conner, who at 6' 1" and 235 pounds is the quintessential battering ram who loves creating contact between the tackles, but is also an excellent lead blocker and is sturdy at blitz pick up, as well as adding a dimension in the short passing game.  Conner has been beset by illness (Lymphoma) and injury (MCL, hip), but came back strong from both to become a second-team all-American, showing the kind of resiliency and mental toughness that makes the Patriots champions.

Toledo's Kareem Hunt checks all of the boxes, but is not superb in any area - just an all-around good player who has excellent vision to find the crease, has a staggering chip block to rag doll blitzers and is capable in the passing game, particularly on the jailbreak screens.

North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen can only be described as a Dion Lewis clone, who has a little James White in him as well.  Pigeon-holed as a passing back by pro scouts, Cohen has electric feet, a ballet dancer's pirouette and an incapacitating stutter step that leaves tacklers grasping at air.  The only problem is he is just 5' 6" tall and weighs in at 190 pounds, most of it in his legs.

Cohen can do a Claude Raines in the tall timber and come shooting out like a jack-in-the-box and take the ball the distance, but really isn't built to take on a heavy load in the running game on the pro level.

Despite being a pass-first offense, the Patriots rely on their running backs just as much - if not more - than any other team in the league, as their touch ratio favors their running backs by a large margin (56%-44%) and their backs are targeted in the running game nearly a quarter of the time despite all of the pass catching talent New England possesses in their receiver and tight end corps...

...which is obviously a recipe for success, winning two of the last three Super Bowls, and making it to at least the AFC Championship game for the past six seasons and counting...

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