By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Even with their most high-profile free agents, the Patriots appear to be letting their players test the market and come back with the best offer to see if they are willing to match. Running back LeGarrette Blount is one such case.
Yahoo! NFL writer Charles Robinson tweeted on Sunday that the Patriots are “prepping” to lose Blount as an unrestricted free agent, expecting a team to make him an offer they’re not willing to match. This comes just two weeks after Blount expressed his desire to return to New England on NFL Total Access.
“I just want to make sure I go into this free agency with an open mind, knowing that I definitely want to go back to New England,” said Blount. “I love it there. I love the culture. I love the players. … But we’ll cross that bridge whenever we cross it.”
Although Blount sounds like he’d be willing to take a discount to stay with the Patriots, he’s almost certainly going to find an offer that exceeds that $1.45 million in total cash that Blount earned in 2016. It’s distinctly possible that an overzealous team would chase the 18 touchdowns that Blount punched in last season, throwing him an offer with an AAV that ranges somewhere between the 2017 salaries of the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell ($2.8 million) and the Jaguars’ Chris Ivory ($4.5 million).
If that happens … best of luck, LG. Enjoy the cash.
So where do the Patriots go from here? It’s highly likely that they stick with the bargain-bin route in their quest to replace Blount’s early-down role in the lineup. It really shouldn’t be hard to find someone to give you at least a facsimile of Blount’s production and playing style, for a fraction of Blount’s likely price tag as a free agent.
As admirable as Blount was in 2016, he’s simply not a special player. The Patriots can find someone cheap who can lumber for a few yards here and there, wear defenses down late in games, and pound the ball into the end zone when they’re on the goal line. Remember … Blount was one of those bargains when the Patriots got him. Both times.
This offseason looks like a surprisingly busy year for free-agent running backs over the age of 30. The presence of big names like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles alone could drive up Blount’s price tag, but the likes of DeAngelo Williams (33), Danny Woodhead (32), Tim Hightower (30), Reggie Bush (32), Chris Johnson (31), Justin Forsett (31), James Starks (31), and Rashad Jennings (31) could all be looking for work come Thursday at 4 p.m.. If the Patriots are still willing to pay for a 30-year-old running back, it’s probably best to let that market dictate itself and see if Blount could still come cheaply.
Otherwise, the Patriots will probably look to find the next Blount and get a little younger at that spot – rather than risk the 30-year-old falling off the proverbial cliff while on their payroll. There will be a handful of unheralded running backs who are 26 or 27 years old, have similar bulk and power running ability, and (most importantly) would save the Patriots at least a couple million per year.
In that department, keep an eye on pending unrestricted free agents like the Chiefs’ Knile Davis, the Rams’ Benny Cunningham, the Bengals’ Rex Burkhead, the Texans’ Johnathan Grimes, and the Colts’ Robert Turbin.
While it would certainly be risky for the Patriots to potentially hand the early-down running back role to a rookie out of the draft, it’s likely that they would supplement a draft pick with one of the aforementioned cheap free agent signings. They also still have Dion Lewis, who has proved to be respectable when called upon to run between the tackles.
But if the Patriots want to add a running back with size, they could get a good prospect without having to burn one of their early picks. This year’s draft class of running backs is being hailed as one of the deepest in recent memory, with a handful of backs projected to go in the first round. With a class that deep, there are bound to be a few good backs who fall to the middle rounds – and that’s where the Patriots could pounce.
The Patriots won’t reach for a running back early on. But in rounds 3-4, there could be a back that meets their needs in terms of size and running style waiting for them. That’s why you might want to keep an eye on Texas’ D’Onta Forman, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, BYU’s Jamaal Williams, and Wyoming’s Brian Hill.
Blount will not get the kind of payday that Peterson or Charles get in free agency, but the likelihood is that he can fetch more money than any of the other 30-plus-year-old running backs that will be on the market. The Patriots are likely to be priced out and add a couple of cheaper running backs through free agency and the draft – and the search for the next 18-touchdown behemoth will begin.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
All salaries and financial figures according to Spotrac.