Last season was a massive trend-breaker for the Patriots’ running back position. Rhamondre Stevenson played 100 more snaps than the next closest Patriots running back in the last two years. He filled two roles – early-down back and passing-down back – that are usually held by two different players in the Patriots’ offense.
Some of that was due to the fact that the Patriots seemed hesitant to play their two rookies at the position, Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris. Those two should help lessen the load on Stevenson this year.
Still, running back may be a need. Stevenson was also pressed into more playing time due to injuries last season. While the Patriots have Stevenson, Strong, and Harris returning, they’ll need more depth behind those three (NFL teams on average need a minimum of four to five running backs to get through a season). Damien Harris is a pending free agent and Ty Montgomery, James Robinson, and J.J. Taylor aren’t roster locks.
Will the Patriots use a late draft pick to add more affordable depth at the position? Or could a bigger swing be in store? Let’s explore both options as we continue our positional draft preview.
TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA – NOVEMBER 26: Jahmyr Gibbs #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes against Caleb Wooden #21 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Would the Patriots use a top-50 pick on a running back? It seems unlikely, but there is one scenario that does stand out.
Jahmyr Gibbs from Alabama is one of the top running backs in this draft. He did everything last year for a Crimson Tide offensive coordinated by Bill O’Brien. Not only was he the team’s leading rusher, but he also led the team in catches with 44 receptions for 444 yards. O’Brien spoke very highly of Gibbs during their year together in Tuscaloosa, and Gibbs returned the favor.
Could a reunion between the two be set up in Foxborough? Gibbs is a do-it-all back who could probably also see some time at slot receiver in the NFL. His ability to get quickly in and out of cuts, explosive first step, and breakaway speed are all high-level traits that would boost and help diversify the Patriots’ offensive attack, while giving the team a high-level spell back for Rhamondre Stevenson to lessen his workload from last year.
Such a move would mean the Patriots using at least a top-50 pick in the draft on a running back, and likely moving up if he’s not the pick at 14. With experienced slot receivers on the board, it would just be about the familiarity between O’Brien and Gibbs.
The only other running back expected to go in the top 50 is Bijan Robinson from Texas. Most evaluators have him as the top back in this draft class, and he’s expected to go in the first round. A more traditional downhill runner, he ran for 1,580 yards on 6.1 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns last year for the Longhorns, and was named a Unanimous All-American and Doak Walker Award winner.
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 19: Zach Charbonnet #24 of the UCLA Bruins runs the ball against the USC Trojans during the first quarter in the game at Rose Bowl on November 19, 2022 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
There are two other backs expected to go in the top 100 that project as Patriots fit. Unlike Gibbs and Robinson, these players should be available closer to the end of Day 2.
Zach Charbonnet from UCLA is a powerful back who prefers to run through defenders than around them. Unlike most bruising backs though he’s proven he can contribute in the passing game. Last season he caught 37 passes for 321 yards. The question will be if he can diversify his running style at the next level.
There’s also Tyjae Spears from Tulane, whose stock has risen quickly during the pre-draft process launched by a strong performance at the Senior Bowl. A shifty early-down back, Spears had an incredibly productive college career – something the Patriots seem to prefer when drafting at the running back position. Last season Spears ran for 1,581 yards and 6.9 yards per carry. He’d be a good speed complement to Stevenson on early downs in New England.
Devon Achane from Texas A&M ran the fastest 40 of any running back at the Combine at 4.32 seconds. He’s another player who could add speed to the Patriots’ offense.
Early Day 3 early-down backs
SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA – DECEMBER 18: DeWayne McBride #22 of the UAB Blazers runs the ball in the second half against the BYU Cougars during the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Blazers defeated the Cougars 31-28. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Now onto the range of the draft where the Patriots are most likely to add a running back. Of the 16 running backs the Patriots have drafted in the Bill Belichick era 10 have been taken outside of the top-100, and the Patriots haven’t taken a running back in the top 100 since 2019.
With more running backs available deeper in the draft, we’ll split players up by role as well as range. First, players that fit best as early-down backs. That can be power backs as well as elusive runners who don’t project to be factors in the passing game.
As mentioned above, the Patriots have a history of targeting backs in the draft who stuffed the box score. In terms of production, there is no better back in this class than DeWayne McBride of Alabama-Birmingham. McBride was second in the nation last year in both rushing yards (1,713) and touchdowns (19). In some ways, he’s like the running back version of Bailey Zappe in this class. Other big-time college producers include Sean Tucker of Syracuse and Israel Abanikanda of Pittsburgh.
In terms of more upside-oriented players, Kendre Miller from TCU is a really interesting player. Between his build and the way he runs the ball, there are some similarities to Rhamondre Stevenson’s draft profile when he was coming out of Oklahoma in 2021.
Early Day 3 passing-down backs
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – SEPTEMBER 03: Kenny McIntosh #6 of the Georgia Bulldogs rushes against the Oregon Ducks during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Kick-Off Game between Oregon and Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 03, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Last year, the Patriots used a fourth-round pick on Pierre Strong Jr., who projects to fill James White’s old role that Rhamondre Stevenson mostly held in double-duty last year. Strong should be the favorite for that role heading into camp, but will the Patriots hedge their bets by drafting another passing-down back in the same range this year?
If they want to draft a player significantly higher than where Strong was selected, Kenny McIntosh is a borderline top 100 pick. Georgia has put out very well-rounded backs the last few years (James Cook last year, for example) and McIntosh is the next player up. He ran for 829 yards last season, while adding another 505 receiving yards to his total.
Further down the board is Eric Gray from Oklahoma. Gray is an elite receiver who has already drawn some comps to White due to his size and style of play.
Then there’s Deuce Vaughn, the tremendously talented back from Kansas State. In terms of pure skill, Vaughn has a strong case as the second-most talented receiving back in this class behind Gibbs. However, there are questions about his ability to contribute in pass protection at 5-foot-5, 179 pounds. He’s been compared to another undersized Kansas State back in Darren Sproles, who he has worked with training in the past.
Late Day 3 early-down backs
MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 19: Mohamed Ibrahim #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers runs with the ball against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the second quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Maybe the Patriots wait until the final rounds of the draft to take a running back. Even if they do that, they’ll have options.
At the Shrine Bowl they worked with Mohamed Ibrahim out of Minnesota. He runs very hard and has more power than his 5-foot-8, 203 pound frame would suggest. He can handle a significant workload at that size, and ran for 1,665 yards last year – the third most in Division-I. It was the third 1,000 yard season of his career. While Ibrahim really wasn’t used as a pass catcher at Minnesota, he said at the Shrine Bowl he hoped to prove to teams during the draft process he can contribute in the passing game as well.
If the Patriots want a real bruiser or a pure goal line back, Tavion Thomas from Utah would be the guy. He checked in at the NFL Combine at 6-foot, 237 pounds and runs with a mean streak. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but getting him to the ground almost always requires a group effort from the defense.
Late Day 3 passing-down backs
STANFORD, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 10: Travis Dye #26 of the USC Trojans runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on September 10, 2022 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
As the college football season wound down, Travis Dye from USC looked like a player who could push for a top 150 draft selection. An Oregon transfer, not only is he smooth as a receiver but also a great blocker for the position. However, a late-November ankle injury ended his season, and has held him out of both the Shrine Bowl and Combine drills. His draft makeup will rely heavily on teams’ medical evaluations of him, but if he’s healthy he’s a real sleeper in this draft.
Evan Hull from Northwestern is one of the most interesting players in this draft. The Wildcats would line Hull up all over the formation, including snaps as a fullback and move tight end. He was the focal point of their offense at times, and had 1,459 all-purpose yards in 2022. Speed was one of his biggest knocks coming into the pre-draft process, but he ran a 4.47 second 40 at the Combine.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.