By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Life in the NFL for a 30-year-old running back is hard enough as it is. But the Patriots just made it a good deal more difficult for LeGarrette Blount.
Coming off a career-best season, Blount has spent the last two months on the NFL unemployment line. No team was eager to throw money at Blount, despite his 1,161 rushing yards and NFL-best 18 touchdowns last season.
Yet there was hope on the horizon, as May 9 represented the cutoff point for free-agent signings factoring in to the compensatory pick formula. That is to say that any team that signed Blount after May 9 would not have his contributions work against their chances of getting a compensatory pick in the 2018 draft. It’s easy to believe at least one team was willing to jump at the chance to sign a player coming off such a successful season.
And so, for teams that didn’t get what they needed at running back in free agency or the draft, the time had come for Blount to get his offers and make his money. That was, until the Patriots slapped a “seldom-used” tender on him, thus ensuring that if Blount does sign elsewhere, they will get credit in the compensatory formula, and his new team will get “docked” in the formula, so to speak.
For a guy who’s provided 677 rushes for the Patriots (12th-most in franchise history), gained 2,917 yards (10th in team history), scored 34 touchdowns (fifth in Patriots history), and played a major role on two Super Bowl-winning teams, it is a rather impolite move to hamstring him in free agency.
Of course — of course! — the Patriots do not operate with the motto of “Be Polite As Possible Today.” Running an NFL franchise with such a directive would not lead to much success. It is as ruthless a business as there is in the world, one where hundreds of men lay their bodies and long-term health on the line to make as much money as possible (pennies, compared to the profits scooped up by the owners) in the short time frame during which they’re deemed worthy of contracts. That’s the way it works, and Bill Belichick’s willingness to make cold, calculated decisions is one of the greatest reasons for the Patriots’ unprecedented run of success.
Nobody could ever dispute that. It’s just that this particular instance feels more than a little wrong.
That’s in large part due to the presumption that the Patriots have very little need for Blount in 2018 and beyond. The top of their running back depth chart currently includes Mike Gillislee, James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead — a quartet that counts for more than $10 million against the salary cap in 2017. There aren’t enough carries to go around, and there’s not really room for between $1.1 million and $2 million for Blount to be added to the mix.
Perhaps worst of all for Blount, once training camp opens, his free-agent options go from 32 teams to just one team, as the Patriots own exclusive rights with the running back at that point. Had the Patriots not placed the tender on Blount, and had the running back remained unsigned when another team suffered an injury at running back either in the preseason or early in the regular season, Blount would have made sense as a veteran replacement. Now, that possibility is off the table.
As has been stated, life is difficult for running backs on the wrong side of 30. Even Adrian Peterson, arguably a top 10 running back of all time, had to scrap to find work this offseason at age 32, and he was only able to garner $3.5 million guaranteed.
In last month’s draft, 26 running backs were selected. In 2016, 20 running backs were drafted. In 2015, the number was 23. In 2014, it was 20. With only 32 teams in the league, the math is not kind to veterans who cost more and carry more wear on their bodies. The league chews up and spits out running backs every single year, and for those players who aren’t All-Pros or Pro Bowlers, finding even one team willing to take the risk can be difficult.
The Patriots did not create this environment. But for Blount, they certainly compounded it.
That’s not to demonize the Patriots for protecting their own interests over those of a single player. It is, though, perhaps just the latest example of the dire need for the players’ union to negotiate a much better system for players when the next round of CBA discussions begins in earnest.
From August through February, running backs take arguably the worst beatings of any position on the football field. There’s no need to wallop them again in May.