By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Leading up to the start of training camp, we’ll be breaking down each position on the Patriots roster. Here’s a look at New England’s current stable of running backs heading into the 2021 season.
Patriots running backs were actually pretty solid during the 2020 season, and they should be just as effective — if not more so — in 2021. The New England ground attack received a massive boost by the fact that Cam Newton remained a talented runner in his first season with the team, as the QB averaged 4.3 yards per carry and amassed nearly 600 yards on the ground. He also ran it into the end zone 12 times last season, his highest rushing TD total since his rookie year.
The running backs themselves were led by Damien Harris, who thrived once he was made the team’s starting back. The second-year pro averaged five yards per carry and picked up a team-high 691 yards on the ground over 10 games. New England’s second-leading rusher out of the back field was Sony Michel, who had 449 yards in his nine games.
James White was his usual steady self as New England’s pass-catcher out of the backfield, catching 49 of the 62 passes that went his way for 375 yards over 14 games. He led the Patriots in YAC, with 403 additional yards after he came down with his receptions. He continued to be James White despite not having Tom Brady throwing him the ball and the tragedy that struck the White family ahead of Week 2.
There really hasn’t been much change to the backfield since last season, and it should continue to be a reliable group in the New England offense.
Offseason Additions: Stevenson (NFL Draft), Gaffney (free agency)
Offseason Subtractions: Rex Burkhead (free agency)
Harris is primed for an even bigger season after a year of serving as New England’s primary rusher. The kid can barrel his way down the field and run over would-be tacklers, breaking a team-high 12 tackles in 2020. Those numbers should increase as he gains more experience.
Harris’ emergence puts even more pressure on Michel, whose fifth-year option was not picked up over the offseason. That makes 2021 a contract year for the fourth-year back, who played in only nine games last season due to a mid-season trip to IR and a bout with COVID. He saw his workload diminish upon his return, and he played in just 18 percent of New England’s offensive snaps last season. He’s going to need to have another big year out of the backfield to earn another contract in New England.
White will continue to be White, so there is really no concern there. He should have a much bigger year with New England adding tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry as well, two monster bodies to block for the back when he makes his receptions.
Stevenson is an intriguing rookie out of Oklahoma, another power back for the mix. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry in his two seasons with the Sooners, scoring 13 touchdowns in his 19 collegiate contests. Like most running backs in New England, he’ll likely receive a red shirt year in 2021, but could make appearances here and there if the team needs some added depth.
J.J. Taylor is an exciting little guy out of the backfield, and he may get a bigger role this year with Rex Burkhead departing for Houston. Brandon Bolden will continue to fill his role on special teams, one of the key cogs in that phase of the game.
The Patriots won’t rank near the top of the NFL in rushing from their running backs, but the collection should once again be a solid group that helps the offense move down the field.