Patriots passing-down backs showing encouraging signs early in training camp
August 8th, 2022
Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Ty Montgomery (14) with the ball at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
With James White’s status to start the season still up in the air after he suffered a serious hip injury last season, the Patriots’ passing-down back role is a key job that needs to be filled heading into the regular season. Through two weeks of camp, it looks like the Patriots will have options of who to turn to.
Just how involved is this role in the Patriots’ offense? From 2015 to 2020, White ranked first or second on the Patriots in catches in four seasons. In the other two, he ranked fourth. At the time he got hurt last year – albeit early in the season – he was leading the team in catches.
If he can’t be on the field for Week 1, who will replace that production? Multiple candidates have emerged so far in camp.
We’ll start with Ty Montgomery, who is listed as a wide receiver on the roster but has played both receiver and running back going back to his second NFL season in 2016. A couple of quick notes about Montgomery, who the Patriots signed to a two-year, $3.6 million contract this spring, after watching him in person for the first time – he’s more built than he appears on TV, and he’s faster in person too.
Montgomery has looked very natural as a pass catcher so far in camp, spending a significant amount of time working out of the backfield (although he has also lined up as a wide receiver at times). He has the frame to hold up in pass protection. It really looks like the Patriots have a plan for him, and it would make sense for some passing-down back snaps to be a part of that role.
While it does look like Montgomery will make the roster, how the team views him will become a fascinating conversation as we get closer to roster cuts. As mentioned above, he’s currently listed as a wide receiver. If that’s his position, he projects as the sixth wide receiver on the roster along with DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, and Tyquan Thornton. Those numbers could make it tough for a player like Tre Nixon or Kristian Wilkerson to land a spot, which would grow the wide receiver total to seven (and that’s not counting Matthew Slater).
If they decide to view him as a running back, it could create a squeeze at that position. That could mean J.J. Taylor ends up on the outside looking in, or rookie Kevin Harris ends up with a red shirt year.
Back to the passing-down back question though, Rhamondre Stevenson has also shown he’ll factor in. Speaking with the media after practice last week, Stevenson told reporters that area of his game was a big focus this offseason.
“I did a lot of that [in the offseason] – running routes, getting better with my hands, pass protection,” he said when asked if he feels he’s grown as a receiver. “I feel a lot more comfortable running routes and catching passes out of the backfield,” he added.
In 12 games last year, Stevenson caught 14 passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns. He was mainly used in the screen game, averaging 10.4 yards after the catch per reception. As he mentioned though, his route running and route tree have improved and grown heading into this season.
At 6-foot, 227 pounds, he should have no problem handing the blocking assignments that come with the role as well. During last year’s draft, he shined in pass protection at every step.
The question with Stevenson isn’t whether or not he can contribute on passing downs, but if the Patriots will use him in that role. Generally careful about overworking players at such as physical position, the Patriots tend to break their backs up into two groups – the early-down backs (think Antowain Smith, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, LeGarrette Blounte, Sony Michel, Damien Harris) and passing-down backs (Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, James White). Very few players end up doing both, and those who do are usually the second-most used player at the spot (ex. Rex Burkhead spelling both Sony Michel and James White during the majority of his tenure in New England).
Expect Stevenson to be involved somewhat as a pass-catcher, but if he’s going to be the primary player in the role, something would have to give in terms of the Patriots’ philosophy at the running back position. He could end up featuring in both roles, but that would be a bit of a trend-breaker for the Patriots. Over the last 10 years, the team’s lead backs generally end up playing between 30 and 40 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Such a role for Stevenson would probably put him over 50 percent. Only two Patriots backs have had a usage rate over 50 percent, with White playing 53 percent of the time in 2018 and Vereen 52 percent in 2014. Unlike Stevenson, who would be playing both running back roles, those two were primarily passing-down backs in pass-happy offenses.
They could also just move Stevenson from one category to the other, limiting his involvement as an early-down back. That could work for him, but it would leave the depth behind Damien Harris relatively thin with Taylor and rookie Kevin Harris as the next two guys up. The Patriots generally like to platoon at that spot to keep their backs fresh, so either Taylor or Harris (or another back) would be looking at a usage rate in the high teens or low 20s.
The final player projected to compete for this role is rookie fourth-round pick Pierre Strong. ‘Projected’ is added as a qualifier here because he hasn’t been involved much to this point, having been limited for most of camp. He took his first reps in team drills late in Thursday’s practice.
Strong remains somewhat of an unknown, but his skill set makes him a logical fit for passing down assignments. However, in his first year he’s already two weeks behind everybody else. How fast he can catch up will likely dictate how soon and how much he’ll be involved in the regular season.
Preseason games will offer a much better look as to where things stand at this position. But early on, even with the possibility of White missing regular season time, it looks like the Patriots will have contributors as what has always been a crucial spot in their offense.
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.