By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots struggled in the running game throughout the 2019 season. And somehow, the backs themselves are near the bottom of the list of reasons why. But despite the obvious blocking problems on the offensive line and at tight end, the Patriots' current group of running backs did little to make up for it.
Part of the reason why is because they're simply not at their best when they try to line up and run it down your gullet. James White is still best-suited as a passing game back. Rex Burkhead's appeal is in his sneaky shiftiness in both the running game and passing game. If Bill Belichick decides to roll with the same group for 2020, his best hope at re-establishing a power run game is for Sony Michel to regain his 2018 form and take another step forward.
But the reality may be that Michel won't become the kind of power back that the Patriots have lacked since the departure of LeGarrette Blount. The absence of the ability to simply blow through defensive walls on third-and-1 (or fourth-and-1) goes back to even 2018, when the offense morphed into a running team. They didn't overpower defenses so much as scheme up gaping holes while the backs protected the ball and executed flawlessly.
While the Patriots remain well-stocked at running back, they could stand to change the mix a little bit. White and Burkhead are both entering the final years of their contracts and, especially if Tom Brady signs with another team, are far from guaranteed to stick around beyond 2020. Former third-round pick Damien Harris is in the fold and could provide some of the power they need, but he's a virtual unknown after barely playing in 2019. Just like cornerback, maybe Belichick looks at the group and wants to make a move a year early instead of a year late.
If he decides to dip into the free agent market for a power back, he has options. Derrick Henry is by far the best available but entirely unrealistic, as he could set a new standard for RB contracts. So Belichick would be much more likely to look for someone more affordable who could deliver good-enough production when he gets the handoff, particularly in short yardage and goal line situations.
The most proven example of the kind of back Belichick could use is Carlos Hyde. He rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career with the Texans last season as he complemented Duke Johnson's receiving abilities well. He'd do the same for White and/or Burkhead. At age 29, Hyde wouldn't be a long-term option and might not be an attractive choice if he's going to cost more than $4 million.
That kind of deal would make Hyde the highest-paid back on the team and send a tsunami of scream-s*** surging throughout New England, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. So let's think about something even more sensible.
A Perfect Fit...
For a longer-term, more cost-effective signing, a name to keep an eye on is Gus Edwards. The Ravens' league-best rushing attack is set with Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson leading the way, with 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill figuring to be more of a factor in 2020. That likely leaves Edwards, an undrafted free agent, signing elsewhere.
The 6-foot-1, 238-pound Edwards has put together back-to-back 700-yard rushing seasons with an average of 5.3 yards per carry. He played at Miami and then (are you sitting down, Bill?) Rutgers. So he may actually be a perfect signing for the Patriots if they do decide to pluck a running back off the open market. The 24-year-old Edwards could be safely signed for 2-3 years at relatively small money and fit what they need on the ground. It would be fun for Pats fans to watch Edwards do this to the Bills:
If Belichick wants a power back for dirt-cheap, he could look to bring in Peyton Barber. The Buccaneers back averaged just 3.7 yards per rush over his first four years and hasn't gained more than 870 yards in a season. But his touchdown numbers rose every year (six last season) and he's known as a guy who will run downhill with purpose. He simply hasn't produced quite enough to earn himself too lucrative of a contract, which would allow the Patriots to field a competitive offer.
All this being said, the Patriots' running back stable is crowded as is. White, Burkhead, Michel, Harris, and Brandon Bolden are all under contract for 2020. Next season will be an important one for Michel as the team starts to think about whether they want to keep him beyond his rookie contract, but he's likely staying for the next two seasons at this point. It would take a surprise trade or release for there to even be room for a new back on the roster.
But if Belichick wants to surprise people with a shakeup at the position, he'll have options on the market who could better fit what the team needs right now.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].