5 Free-Agent Running Backs New England Patriots Should Consider This Offseason
The New England Patriots can't rely on their passing game alone.
That's one of the biggest takeaways from this season. Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game were good enough for long stretches, but without a running game to fall back on, the Patriots fell short.
Part of the problem was the run-blocking up front on the offensive line, but part of the problem was the depth at running back. Yes, the Patriots were plagued with multiple injuries at the position, but their problems running the ball began well before either Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount got injured.
So, while adding depth at running back won't solve all the issues, it's a good place to start. Here's a look at some of the available free-agent running backs the Patriots should be considering this offseason.
We already know that the Patriots don't like to spend big money on running backs. Hey, we didn't say these were the running backs the Patriots need to sign, just the ones they need to consider. And they've proven in the past that they will go outside of their comfort zone for a good player who may be more expensive (see Revis, Darrelle).
If the Patriots want an upgrade in their between-the-tackles running backs, Chris Ivory might be the best option available. Ivory averaged 2.61 yards after contact per rush attempt in 2016, 15th out of 52 qualifying running backs in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus. Whether the Patriots improve their run-blocking or not, they could use someone like Ivory to break tackles.
That being said, there are some red flags. Ivory will be 28 years old in March, which puts him close to that 30-year-old plateau where players can drop off a cliff in an instant. What's more, he has been injured over the past few seasons and dealt with quad and knee injuries at separate points in 2015.
If Ivory checks out medically, he would be a great addition to the backfield.
Unlike Ivory, Miller doesn't excel at breaking tackles and picking up extra yards after contact—or at least, that's what his critics say. But according to Pro Football Focus, Miller actually averaged more yards after contact per carry than Ivory: 2.76 for Miller, 2.61 for Ivory.
What's more, Miller is exactly the kind of versatile back the Patriots love, because he isn't limited to just one role in their offense. He can run the ball, he can catch passes, but he does have one hole in his game: blitz protection. Miller improved marginally in that area in 2015, but he's going to have to become ultra-reliable in that area if he wants to work his way onto the field in passing situations on a consistent basis.
Miller has been held back for years in Miami. There might be a team out there that is willing to pay him on his potential, but if Miller can't find any high bidders, the Patriots could add a talented back to their offense while subtracting a talented back from a division rival.
At 34 years old, Seattle Seahawks running back Fred Jackson cannot possibly have much left in the tank. But that hasn't stopped the Patriots from adding seasoned veterans to their roster at positions of need in the past (see Torry Holt in 2010 and John Lynch in 2008).
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has raved about Jackson in the past, notably when he had to prepare for Jackson twice a year when the veteran back was with the Buffalo Bills. Jackson's production has declined each of the past two years, and he was an afterthought in the Seahawks offense behind Thomas Rawls, Marshawn Lynch and even Christine Michael.
The Patriots might be better off relying on younger bodies to put up numbers in the running game, but Jackson can still offer valuable leadership, produce in a pinch—if the nightmare scenario of the 2015 injury bug repeats itself in 2016—and fill a number of roles in the Patriots offense.
As a rookie, Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris had one of the best first years of any running back in NFL history. He ran for the third-most rushing yards for any back in the first year of his career. Since then, it's been a steady fall from grace for Morris, who has now had four straight years of declining production.
So why should the Patriots even consider him?
For one, he'll probably be affordable. There won't be a long line of free-agent suitors for a running back who some teams might view as a flash in the pan. He's also young at just 27 years old, so there's still a chance that the Patriots (or another team) could squeeze a little more juice out of him.
There's also the possibility that a change of scenery will do Morris some good. The former Florida Atlantic running back had his greatest success in a zone-style running scheme. The Patriots run a mix of power and zone schemes, but could certainly find ways to use a back with Morris' skill set.
OK, so I kind of cheated on this one, but the Patriots just don't have a lot of options on the open market in the backfield. There aren't many talented, affordable between-the-tackles runners available as free agents. Their best bet might be to stay in-house.
The Patriots placed Blount on season-ending injured reserve with a hip injury near the end of the 2015 season. Prior to that injury, Blount was on pace for one of the best seasons of his career and had already matched a career high with six touchdown carries.
Blount wasn't quite the gold standard of breaking tackles in 2015. His average of 2.44 yards per carry after contact ranked 22nd out of 52 qualifying running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. Anyone who watched those games, however, knows he got very little help from the Patriots offensive line at times.
Given the Patriots' typical approach to free-agent running backs, it may be in their best interest to stick with who they know—especially if "who they know" can do the things the Patriots want at a price they like.