By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Will undrafted rookie running back J.J. Taylor play a critical role in determining the fate of the 2020 New England Patriots? Probably not. But the beauty of this weird, mixed-up, strange 2020 football season is that there are no wrong answers, and there are no known entities.
So for the time being, if you want to go nuts about the undersized scatback, then hey — go nuts.
On Tuesday morning, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about Taylor. Specifically, he was asked if there are any hints of Mack Herron to Taylor’s game. Ever the football historian, Belichick said it woudln’t be fair to try to throw those comparisons on Taylor’s shoulders just one week into his NFL career. Yet the coach expressed how impressed he’s been with the undrafted rookie thus far.
“I don’t know if we know enough about J.J. to make that comparison,” Belichick said. “He’s played in one game and he’s practiced. Mack was a returner and a runner and he caught the ball out of the backfield and was quick and hard to tackle and super productive and all that. I mean, we’ll see whether J.J. fits into those categories or not. I mean he certainly might. But until he has some production to go with it, I think that’s … Mack Herron’s a pretty good football player. I wouldn’t want to throw people into that category until they’ve really had an opportunity to prove themselves.”
Herron, if you’re unaware, accounted for 2,087 yards from scrimmage and 15 offensive touchdowns on 415 touches from 1973-75. He also had a tick under 1,000 punt return yards on 84 returns, as well as a tick under 2,000 kick return yards on 82 opportunities, taking one back for a 92-yard touchdown.
Taylor, meanwhile, has 28 rushing yards on four attempts. A slight disparity. (Taylor rushed for 3,263 yards and 18 touchdowns while catching 62 passes for 487 yards and two more touchdowns in his collegiate career at Arizona. He also had 988 kick return yards and a touchdown on his 41 kick returns.)
“That’s certainly nothing against J.J.,” Belichick continued. “He’s done all he can do to this point. There’s not really anything more that he could have done. He’s out there every day, he works hard, he’s one of the hardest-working rookies, one of the hardest-working kids on the team. And I think that’s shown up in the improvement and the performance that he’s been able to have through the course of training camp and now into the start of the regular season. But it’s a long way to go. I’ll just have to see how he develops and whether he can continue to improve, and when he gets his opportunities to play, how productive he can be with those. But he’s earned what he’s gotten, so we’ll see what happens.”
Sure we will. For now, let’s look back at Taylor’s action from his NFL debut to get an idea of what kind of runner he might be.
Here was Taylor’s first carry in the NFL, a pretty basic inside handoff out of an I-formation that went for four yards.
Not a whole lot to glean from that one, but you can see how he can use his small size to his advantage by ducking beneath the trees and burrowing his way up the field.
Taylor’s second touch came in the third quarter, when he displayed some tremendous concentration to haul in a pass that was tipped by Shaq Lawson. Once he caught it, Taylor had two Dolphins to deal with in the open field, so it went for just a four-yard gain.
That play kick-started a series of Taylor action, as he got handoffs on the next two snaps.
The first one went for eight yards, and there were two aspects to really like about it. For one, he saw a hole and he showed absolutely no hesitation before bursting right through it. Secondly, he finished the run not by trying to dance around a defender but instead by trying to run through him.
When it comes to undersized backs in the Patriots’ system, comparisons to Dion Lewis will be unavoidable. And among the many parts of Lewis’ game that stood out was his ability to finish runs by bowling over unsuspecting defenders. That finish by Taylor was right out of that book.
There is not too much to say about Taylor’s next carry, which came on the following snap. He once again followed his blocks, fearlessly burst into the middle of the field and picked up five yards.
The coaching staff kept him on the field for this drive, and he was given a pass protection role on the following snap. It didn’t go great …
… but no running back can stop two unblocked pass rushers. In this case, a veteran quarterback like Cam Newton knew that some rushers would be breaking in, so he fired his pass quickly. The pass was complete to N’Keal Harry, good enough to move the chains for a fresh set of downs.
Taylor then got a quick breather, as Josh McDaniels dialed up that halfback pass that never really materialized. But then the ball went right back to Taylor, who turned in his best run of the day:
That one was well-blocked, obviously, but it’s not as if there was a gaping hole for Taylor to exploit. He managed to keep his eyes up field, cutting back to find a crease just wide enough for him to burst through. He broke a tackle at the line and then was off into the second level, tightly securing the football while finishing off what was a thoroughly impressive run.
Taylor wouldn’t get another carry, but his viability as a runner likely contributed to the Dolphins’ defense biting so badly on play-action on the play that came to be known only as The N’Keal Harry Fumble Play.
All in all, it’s a fairly solid debut for a player who’s behind some well-established veterans on the depth chart. He wasn’t able to really show what kind of elusiveness he might have in the open field, but he was also given four inside handoffs while trying to just get his feet wet while going against NFL defenses.
Contributions like that should ensure that despite that crowded backfield, the 5-foot-6 Taylor will continue to carve out a role in this new-look Patriots offense.