Why Patriots might lean on overlooked RBs in post-Tom Brady offense

So much of the focus around the New England Patriots has been about how they will transition at quarterback without Tom Brady that other areas might be overlooked. Former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum recently highlighted one.

“When you think about that running back room, it is the best room of any position group in all of football,” Tannenbaum said during a Friday appearance on ESPN’s Get Up! program.

That is high praise, and sure to spark debate, but not to be lost in any discussion is Tannenbaum’s overall point that the Patriots have running back personnel to potentially be more balanced and diverse in 2020.

All five backs return: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden. There also has been an influx of fullback and tight end options.

And with the prospect of better health along the offensive line, starting with the return of center David Andrews, being able to control things on the ground could turn out to be the best formula to win — whether it’s 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham or veteran Brian Hoyer at quarterback.

Among the intriguing storylines with Patriots running backs in 2020 are two things that could elevate the group to unquestioned elite status.

First, can the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Michel become a greater part of the passing game? The 2018 first-round pick (31st overall) had his greatest success in the playoff run en route to winning Super Bowl LIII, when the offense turned smashmouth.

He was more of a pass-catching threat in college — finishing with 64 receptions for 621 yards and six touchdowns in his four seasons at Georgia — but has hardly been a factor in two seasons in New England (19 catches, 144 yards). That has telegraphed coordinator Josh McDaniels’ intentions at times.

Over the past two seasons, the Patriots totaled 714 snaps with Michel on the field and 70% were designed runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In their 1,454 snaps without Michel on the field, the Patriots had 73% designed passes.

If things don’t change in that area, the Patriots might then be more inclined to take a longer look at Harris, the 2019 third-round pick from Alabama.

The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Harris played five offensive snaps as a rookie, buried on the depth chart and with little special-teams value to crack the game-day roster. But running backs coach Ivan Fears insisted throughout the season that coaches were happy with Harris, and it was just a matter of patience before his opportunity comes.

Shane Vereen (2011) and White (2014) had similar first years with New England before emerging as key cogs, and Harris could be on a similar track. Remember, he left Alabama having averaged 6.4 yards per carry (on 477 rushes), which is the best mark in program history.

So Harris and Michel provide the intrigue to the running back group, while White is the steady hand entering his seventh season.

His status as the top “passing back” is reflected in his 24 touchdown receptions in 78 games, second all time among Patriots backs behind only Larry Garron (26, from 1960 through 1968). To put that number in context, consider that former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook became the fastest running back in NFL history to reach 25 regular-season touchdown catches — in 87 games.

White is making a charge to put his name atop the franchise’s all-time list for regular-season receptions by a running back. His 320 is second behind only Kevin Faulk (411), who is in the Patriots’ Hall of Fame.

Burkhead is the Swiss Army knife option — sort of a cross between early-down backs Michel and Harris, and White — while Bolden is primarily a special-teamer. And diminutive undrafted sparkplug J.J. Taylor, from Arizona, will get a long look as a possible Dion Lewis-type addition.

The best position group in the NFL?

From a standpoint of quality from top to bottom, it’s certainly one of the deepest, and just might hold the key to the Patriots’ offensive success in a post-Brady world.

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