While the value of the running back position has been up for debate during the modern NFL, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick clearly still holds the position in high regard. Part of that is due to the multiplicity of the position in New England, and Belichick’s desire to have versatile athletes throughout the middle of the roster.
New England used a first-round pick on Sony Michel in 2018, and followed that up by selecting Damien Harris in the third-round of 2019. James White has spent 7 seasons in New England as a primary pass-catching running back, and Rex Burkhead has been in Foxboro for four years as a Swiss Army knife tasked with running the ball, receiving, pass protecting and special teams. Undrafted and undersized rookie JJ Taylor made an impact last season as well.
Moving forward, Harris looks like a bona-fide bellcow running back, and Sony Michel returns for another season and figures to have a role. However, both White and Burkhead will enter free agency. It’s unclear if New England trusts JJ Taylor to act as a replacement, meaning the Patriots could look to bring back both veterans.
If they move on from either one, or both, New England may be interested in finding another veteran to handle the bulk of the passing down work.
Patriots Free Agents
Having spent his entire 7-year career with the Patriots, 3-time Super Bowl champion James White will presumably test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. Despite a downtick in quarterback play last season, White still managed to produce 49 receptions over 14 games, upping his career total to 369 catches for over 3,000 career yards. White just turned 29 years-old, but still has less than 700 career touches and hasn’t lost a step. He’s been a team captain over the past three seasons.
Bill Belichick will want to bring back James White at the right price, but it’s entirely possible that the two sides fail to meet in the middle. White will have a market, and New England may have a younger replacement in-house in second-year running back JJ Taylor. I would guess that a team such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to secure White to pair him with Tom Brady, among other teams. Those franchises could easily offer White a wealthier contract as the Patriots have multiple holes to fill at premium positions.
Red Burkhead has now spent four seasons with the Patriots, being undeniably effective both on offense and special teams. He was the team’s best pass protector at running back last season, while pitching in 6 total touchdowns in 10 games. Unfortunately, Burkhead suffered a season-ending injury and he’s yet to play in all 16 games with the Patriots.
Burkhead will be 31 years-old by training camp and returning from yet another injury, which is likely to hurt his free agency market. It’s likely that New England will value him as a player more than any other franchise, but he’ll have to prove that he’s healthy once again. On a short-term deal that is incentive based, Burkhead returning to Patriots training camp makes a lot of sense for both sides.
Potential Free Agent RB Fits
Marlon Mack (25 years old – 6’0 210 – 247 rushes, 1,091 yards, 8 TD’s in 2019. Only 1 game played in 2020)
Marlon Mack has the highest ceiling among all realistic free agents at running back, and could project as the Patriots full-time starter if he returns to his pre-injury form. Mack was the Colts lead running back at 22-23 years old in 2018 and 2019. In the 26 games that he appeared in, Mack posted 1,999 rushing yards for 17 rushing touchdowns, at 4.5 yards per attempt. While he wasn’t used much as a pass-catcher, it wasn’t due to a lack of talent. Mack caught 65 passes in college and added another 21 as a rookie.
Mack still has starting running back upside, and only turned 25 years-old yesterday. A torn Achilles ended his season after one game last season, so signing him would bring a level of risk, but the reward could give the Patriots a loaded backfield.
Jamaal Williams (26 years old – 6’0 213 – 119 rushes, 505 yards, 2 TD’s in 2020)
Jamaal Williams has been the second running back for the Green Bay Packers during his entire rookie contract, carrying the ball 500 times and catching 122 passes through four seasons. He’s a balanced player who has avoided being overused due to a timeshare with Aaron Jones. With 70 receptions and 6 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons, Williams has the pass-catching profile that Bill Belichick values. He has one of the higher ceilings among available free agent running backs.
Darrel Williams (26 years old – 5’11 225 – 39 rushes, 169 yards, 1 TD in 2020)
A former undrafted free agent, Darrel Williams has been able to carve out a role through three seasons in Kansas City because of his ability in pass protection and on special teams. Williams has been a part of a timeshare during his college days at LSU and with the Chiefs, resulting in just 488 touches since leaving high school. There’s minimal tread on his tires, and his versatility could be something that Bill Belichick values on a moderate contract.
Duke Johnson (28 years old – 5’9 210 – 77 rushes, 235 yards, 1 TD in 2020)
With a similar skill-set to James White, the veteran Duke Johnson could seamlessly replace the production if White was to leave in free agency. He has over 300 receptions to this point in his 6-year career, which included five straight seasons of playing in 16 games. Johnson has been an ideal complimentary option for a number of years, and would be the same in New England.
Dion Lewis (31 years old – 5’8 195 – 29 rushes, 115 yards, 2 TD’s in 2020)
The former Patriot who has remained effective as a pass-catching back in recent years, Dion Lewis could act as a stopgap replacement for James White while JJ Taylor continues to develop behind him. Lewis is nearing the end of his career, but his peak was arguably during his first stint with the Patriots. He would be an inexpensive option that can still produce, having caught 188 receptions over his past 78 games. Since leaving the Patriots, he’s appeared in all 16 games for four consecutive seasons.
TJ Yeldon (27 years old – 6’1 223 – 10 rushes, 70 yards in 2020, 3 games)
TJ Yeldon has never quite gotten the opportunity to be a feature running back, despite the athletic and physical profile to handle those duties. His production has fallen off over the past couple of seasons, but caught 171 passes through his first four years in the NFL. Yeldon has a strong background in pass protection, and could be an insurance policy for Rex Burkhead’s role. Yeldon played for Belichick’s close friend Nick Saban at Alabama, who influenced the Patriots decision to select Damien Harris despite using a first-round pick on the position just a year prior.
Mike Davis (28 years old – 5’9 216 – 165 rushes, 642 yards, 6 TD’s in 2020)
Mike Davis was given a chance to start for the first time in his NFL career last season when Christian McCaffrey was injured, and he was essentially able to replicate McCaffrey’s production during his absence. During his 12 starts, Davis posted 638 rushing yards, 265 receiving yards on 45 receptions, and 8 total touchdowns.
Clearly the Panthers will value Davis as a backup option behind McCaffrey, and a player that they can use to take some burden off their franchise player. While his unique combination of a receiving skill-set with power as a runner would fit well in Foxboro, he’s made it clear that he wants to create an elite tandem with McCaffrey in Carolina.
Aaron Jones (26 years old – 5’9 208 – 201 rushes, 1,104 yards, 9 TD’s in 2020)
Despite being a late-round pick, Aaron Jones has developed into the feature running back for the Packers. He’s become one of the most productive players in the league, with over 3,000 offensive yards and 30 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Jones has played his whole career to this point on a cheap rookie contract, so he’s in line to get a wealthy payday during free agency. For that reason, he may have priced himself out of New England’s range, and the Packers will likely want to bring him back into the fold.
Potential Cap Casualties
Jordan Wilkins (27 years old – 6’1 216 – 84 rushes, 308 yards, 1 TD in 2020)
Quietly a solid player for the Indianapolis Colts over the past three years, Jordan Wilkins has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his career while being a core special teamer. Indianapolis has salary cap space, but minimal need for Wilkins with Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines on the roster. It’s possible that they move on from Wilkins before the final year of his contract due to a lack of need. Wilkins would be a solid addition for depth purposes in the backfield while providing help on special teams for the Patriots.