The New England Patriots learned, the hard way, what life would be like without LeGarrette Blount. That life involves searching for other available running backs to fill the void of Blount's bruising role in the Patriots offense.
Admittedly, that's a lot harder to do in the waning stages of the regular season than it is during the offseason, rife with free-agent and draft options. But even if the Patriots end up searching for other running backs in other stages of the offseason, Blount is a good launching point.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, the Patriots and Blount seem to agree that a reunion is in the best interest of both parties. There's "mutual interest in a new contract," according to Howe, who added that the negotiation is still in its infancy, and that Blount could still hit the market when free agency opens on March 9.
Blount had a good year in 2015. Despite playing just 12 games, Blount rushed 165 times for 703 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and tacked on six rushing touchdowns. Going in on a long-term deal for Blount might not be the best idea, given the fact that the 29-year-old has seen a decline in the last couple of seasons.
The Patriots running game was one of the worst in the league last year, with an average of 87.8 yards per game (third-lowest in the NFL) and 3.7 yards per carry (fourth-lowest).
It wasn't all the fault of the running backs; the offensive line bears some of the blame, with an inexperienced group on the inside coupled with a few key injuries during the course of the season.
That being said, a critical look at the Patriots depth chart at running back reveals a group that's lacking firepower—and the picture gets much more grim when you take Blount out of the picture and factor in Dion Lewis' recovery from a torn ACL.
In a worst-case scenario—without Blount, and with Lewis at less than 100 percent—the Patriots are no better off in Week 1 of the 2016 season than they were in the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos. You know, the game where they rushed 17 times and it felt like too much because they could only muster 44 yards and 2.6 yards per carry.
And for that reason, the plan should not stop with the re-signing of Blount.
Contrary to popular belief, the draft has not been the Patriots' most vital resource at running back. Yes, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were the backbone of the Patriots backfield for four years, and James White has shown great flashes of potential. More often, however, it's free agents and players acquired via trade that have had the biggest impact.
The Patriots traded for Blount during the 2013 NFL draft, and Lewis was a free-agent signee in 2015. This pattern stretches back more than a decade. Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Sammy Morris, Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were all added either via trade or free agency (unrestricted or undrafted free agents).
The pattern of bargain-bin signings makes it easy to foresee more of the same in 2016, so you can almost rule out big-ticket free-agent running backs like Chris Ivory and Doug Martin, who will earn nice paydays given their relatively young age (both are 27) and talent.
Matt Forte told the NFL Network (per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com) he would rather play for Super Bowls than big money, so he's not completely out as an option, but the question then becomes how many Super Bowl contenders are in the market for his services, and what they'd pay.
Where should the Patriots look to add more running backs?
The problem is, there isn't much of a middle class in this group of free-agent backs. You have the high-profile guys like Ivory, Martin and Forte, and then you have a whole host of backs who are either unproven or aging.
Expect the Patriots to take a few shots on some guys that might fall into the latter category—maybe Bill Belichick will finally get to coach another former rival, in ex-Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson; or perhaps someone like Robert Turbin, younger with a little more tread on the tires, would bring the Patriots the depth they need.
Whichever direction the Patriots choose to go from here, signing Blount would be a good first step to maintaining and rebuilding the depth at running back.