5 Running Backs the Patriots Should Be Watching at 2016 NFL Scouting Combine
With the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine right around the corner, the New England Patriots are going through their initial preparation for this year's draft.
The first step in that process is determining the team's biggest needs. The next step is poring over a year's worth of notes to decide which players best fit the needs at those positions.
Among all the positions that would be on a potential priority list, running back would have to be at or near the top of the list. The Patriots lack of a running game could be attributed in part to the collective struggles of the offensive line, but the running back position has to take some of the blame. Even when they were at full health, that group didn't put up a consistently acceptable performance.
On the season, the Patriots' average of 3.7 yards per carry was the fourth-lowest in the league, and their average of 87.8 yards per game was the third-lowest. And if you can imagine, it's possible that things could get worse if the Patriots let LeGarrette Blount walk as a free-agent without adequately replacing his between-the-tackles running ability.
So, here's a look at a handful of running backs the Patriots should have their eyes on in Indianapolis this year.
Derrick Henry, Alabama
Any running back is going to get some attention when he leads the country in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns while also ranking second in yards from scrimmage.
Alabama's Derrick Henry is the latest ball-carrier to star in Alabama's dominant rushing attack, with a stunning 395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2015. Of course, the Crimson Tide have produced some high-profile running backs recently, like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Those backs have all had mixed results, but Henry should still be on the Patriots' radar.
At 6'3" and 242 pounds, Henry isn't the fastest back, but he has the size to be a battering ram in the mold of LeGarrette Blount. He makes breaking tackles look easy. If he runs a solid 40-yard dash (anything faster than 4.5 seconds would be good), he'll definitely turn some heads for his combination of size and speed.
There are few concerns with Henry, though. The first is that the tread might already be wearing thin on his tires, as he had 602 total carries in college, including 395 in 2015. He's also untested in pass protection, has inconsistent hands and is not very adept in the passing game. Henry has the ability to fill a potential need for the Patriots, and he should be available when the Patriots pick in the second round.
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
Ohio State's opponents knew that the Buckeyes were going to run the ball on a consistent basis, and yet, running back Ezekiel Elliott still put up monster numbers week in and week out. He finished the season in the top five in both rushing yards (1,821) and rushing touchdowns (23).
Most will remember that he drew the ire of the media when he questioned Ohio State's play-calling after a loss to Michigan State. That incident isn't likely to raise his stock on the Patriots' draft board, but by all accounts, it appears to have been a one-off incident for an otherwise good kid.
If anyone's going to get an honest evaluation of Elliott's off-field character, it's Bill Belichick, thanks to his longstanding connection to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.
If the Patriots find themselves in need of a LeGarrette Blount replacement, Elliott would be a great option. The 6'0", 225-pound back isn't quite as big as Derrick Henry, but he has a tough between-the-tackles running style; his pass-catching, however, could use some work.
Like Henry, there might be concern over Elliott's workload, with 600-plus touches in the past two seasons. That being said, based on his demonstrated ability, the Patriots should at least kick Elliott's tires to see if he could be a fit. With no first-round pick, though, Elliott might be gone before the Patriots go on the clock.
Devon Johnson, Marshall
Noticing a trend?
Yes, most of the backs on this list are going to be very large, very strong men. Whether LeGarrette Blount leaves as a free agent or not, the Patriots will probably need someone in that mold to be the next in line.
At 6'1" and 244 pounds, Marshall's Devon Johnson is a load to hoe. His nickname ("Rockhead") is perfectly fitting for his running style, which involves low pad level, forward momentum and leg strength to drive through contact. He's not going to make defenders miss in the open field with an ankle-breaking cut, but he can put them on the ground with a hit stick.
Johnson ran the ball 206 times for 1,767 yards (8.6 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns in 2014, but he was bothered by a back injury in 2015 and couldn't follow up on the previous year, finishing with 94 carries for 593 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.
So why should the Patriots have an eye on an injured player on the downslide? The combine presents the easiest opportunity to get a look at Johnson's medical past as a baseline, and then the team can bring him out to New England for a workout and more medical checks if needed. The value would certainly be high for Johnson, who wouldn't likely be selected until Day 3 of the draft.
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame
Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise is a player on the rise. Of course, it's worth mentioning that he started from scratch, having switched to running back after playing safety and wide receiver in his first two seasons.
After one season, 157 carries, 1,029 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns, Prosise proved he has the natural ability and raw athleticism to make the switch. However, the 6'0", 220-pound back must also prove that he has the versatility and mental acumen for the job.
"He's talented and caught all of us off-guard to start the season," an NFL scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "He looks like he has no idea what he's doing at times in protections and that is what could keep him off the field early in his career."
There's also a concern about one of Bill Belichick's pet peeves: ball security. Prosise fumbled five times on his 157 carries in 2015, but that could also be attributed to his lack of experience carrying the ball. With more opportunities to do it, his ability could improve.
Besides, fumble problems and a lack of carries didn't stop the Patriots from drafting Stevan Ridley in the third round in 2011. Of course, that marriage didn't work out long-term, but these are not factors that eliminate Prosise from consideration. The Patriots could wait until the third or fourth round and still add Prosise to their roster.
Alex Collins, Arkansas
When looking for draft prospects who might fit a highly specific need (i.e. between-the-tackles running back), one good place to look is in player comparisons. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Arkansas running back Alex Collins to New York Jets running back Chris Ivory, and the highlight footage shows this to be an accurate comparison for more than just the dreadlocks.
Collins isn't the biggest back on this list, at "just" 5'11" and 215 pounds, but he runs with a level of violence that the Patriots need in their backfield—especially if LeGarrette Blount leaves. The Patriots will love the consistency he showed over the course of his career, tallying more than 1,000 rushing yards and 5.4 yards per carry in each of his three seasons at Arkansas.
He's not a consistent tackle-breaker like Ivory, but he has the quickness to navigate small spaces in the backfield to get away from traffic, and he's quick on the throttle to get back up to speed. One area where he'll have to improve is in the passing game, where he has just 27 career receptions. There's also some concern about wear and tear, as he's handled the ball 692 times in the past three years.
If Collins clears a medical, and if he meets with the Patriots and proves that he has the mental acumen to build up to a bigger role, he could be an option in the second or third round.