LeGarrette Blount heads into 2015 as the Patriots lead back. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the wide receivers and moved on to the tight ends, offensive line and quarterback. Now it’s the running backs:
Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): LeGarrette Blount (125 carries, 547 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 5 TDs with both Pittsburgh and New England), Brandon Bolden (28 carries, 89 yards, 3.2 yards per carry, 1 TD), Travaris Cadet (10 carries, 32 yards, 3.2 yards per carry; 38 catches, 296 yards, 1 TD with New Orleans), Tyler Gaffney (no stats in 2014), Jonas Gray (89 carries, 412 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 5 TDs), Dion Lewis (no stats in 2014), James White (9 carries, 38 yards, 4.2 yards per carry), James Develin (fullback — 3 carries, 5 yards, 1.7 yards per carry).
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. When it comes to the Patriots backfield, plug and play is still the rule. Despite the fact that they accounted for a sizable portion of the running game last year, New England let Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley walk in free agency. (The two combined for 42 percent of the rushing yards and 43 percent of the carries from 2014.) The idea of fungible running backs is nothing new around New England; over the last 10 seasons, six different backs (Gray, Ridley, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Corey Dillon) have led the Patriots in rushing yards — in that span, only the Cardinals, Browns and Saints have had more different backs lead their team in rushing than New England. The return of Blount (despite the fact that he’ll now miss the opener) would seem to guarantee that it will be seven in 11 seasons. However, if seniority in the system is any indication, it’s worth noting that after the departure of Vereen and Ridley, the senior member of the New England backfield — in terms of time in the system — is 25-year-old Brandon Bolden, who has played a grand total of 38 regular-season games with the Patriots. We’ve mentioned this before, but the only thing that’s constant about the state of the New England running game is change.
2. The Patriots will rotate their backs. In 2014, the Patriots became the first Super Bowl winner since the 1987 Redskins to have four different running backs finish with 40 carries or more in their championship season. (That was because of a combination of injury, scheme and personnel.) Things won’t be that dramatic in 2015, but history certainly suggests that New England will again go with what will best be described as a running back-by-committee. While Blount is going to be the closest thing the team has to a lead back, expect Jonas Gray to also get some reps when it comes to working between the tackles, in addition to special teams ace Brandon Bolden. Meanwhile, Cadet and White will get run as candidates to fill the third down job. Meanwhile, Gaffney and Lewis remain wild cards when it comes to predicting their potential production in 2015.
3. For a fullback, James Develin will get plenty of reps. While he will never pile up the gaudy numbers, the former Ivy Leaguer has carved out a nice niche for himself as a member of the New England offense, as the Patriots have become one of the few teams around the league that has relied on a fullback as a key piece of the puzzle. According to Pro Football Focus, Develin was fifth in the league among fullbacks in total snaps with 259, and he graded out as one of the best in the league when it came to both pass and run blocking.
1. Who is going to be the lead option as the third-down back? It’s likely that Travaris Cadet (who had 38 receptions last season with the Saints) will get every opportunity to win the job out of the gate. But don’t discount the possibility that the 5-foot-10, 195-pound White will be in the conversation, at least at some point. The Wisconsin product, who is going into his second year (after fundamentally taking a redshirt year in 2014), has a skill set and resume that would suggest he could step into the job sooner rather than later. He had 73 receptions as a collegian, including 39 as a senior in 2013. Gaffney could also figure as a bit of a wildcard, as he had 32 catches in his career at Stanford. Regardless, it looms as one of the most important positional battles on the roster this summer.
2. Can LeGarrette Blount be a bell cow? Blount is the closest thing the Patriots have to a lead back going into the 2015 season, but as history has taught us (both with Blount and Bill Belichick), that’s no guarantee he’ll reach 200-plus carries. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, as his finest year as a feature back came when he was a rookie with the Bucs in 2011 when he rushed for 1,007 yards on 201 carries. While he’s put in some terrific work in a part-time role since then (particularly the last two seasons with the Patriots), he hasn’t broken the 200-carry or 1,000-yard plateau in a season since then. Ultimately, while he should get the majority of the carries this season, don’t expect the New England running game to rely solely on Blount to help move the chains.
3. Can Jonas Gray return from the doghouse to be a productive member of the Patriots running game? Sure. I mean, he pretty much fell off the face of the earth after his alarm clock failed to go off and he overslept less than a week after landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (After trampling the Colts on 37 carries for 201 yards and four touchdowns in that Sunday night contest, he had just 20 carries the rest of the regular season.) Part of that regression down the stretch was certainly tied to the arrival of Blount, but there’s no reason to think that Gray won’t be able to augment the work of Blount as a between-the-tackles option for the Patriots in 2015, particularly in the opener. (Blount is facing a one-game ban to start the year because of a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.) Right now, Gray and (to a lesser extent) Bolden will as the backups to Blount, but both will still get their carries.
By the numbers: 100 — Per Elias, the 2014 Patriots were the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl without having a single player with 100 rush attempts in that season.
Key new player: Gaffney. Cadet and his quest to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen will certainly bear watching, but Gaffney is a fascinating prospect in his own right. The Stanford product, who was swiped off waivers last summer from Carolina after being taken in the sixth round by the Panthers, spent all year on injured reserve because of a knee issue. But the fact the Patriots kept him around all year despite the fact that they were he wouldn’t be able to contribute speaks to what the franchise believes it might have in someone like Gaffney. In 2013 with Stanford, Gaffney started in 14 games finishing with 330 rushing attempts, 1,709 rushing yards, and 21 rushing touchdowns. (That included a school-record 45 carries for 157 yards in an upset of Oregon.)
The skinny: None of the backs on the New England roster are going to be named All-Pro this year. There’s the very real likelihood that the Patriots won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, or a back who catches more than 30 passes. Believe it or not, that’s OK. In the past, New England has utilized the run game just enough to keep opposing defenses honest, and to keep the threat of play-action a very real one. That will likely be the case again in 2015. While they still need to settle on a third-down back, in the end, the important thing to remember is that when it comes to the New England running backs, the whole is the greater than the sum of the parts.