Corey Dillon – This wasn't how the Patriots drew it up coming into the season. A year after rambling for 1,635 yards, Dillon didn't even get half that in 2006, only managing 733 yards on the ground. He did score 12 touchdowns but a majority of them were near the goal line. No offense to Dillon but if all the Patriots wanted out of their running back is someone to run one-yard for a touchdown; they could sign Moe Williams or Zack Crockett for a lot less money. Dillon missed basically five games this season (he was in for only one play against the Dolphins) while battling ankle and knee injuries. So the big debate heading into the offseason is what is responsible for Dillon's decline? Was it the injuries or is he showing signs of nearing the end of his career? Only time will tell the answer to those questions. How Dillon performs early next season will determine if his poor production in 2005 was due to injuries. No matter what camp you're in, there is no question Patriots fans didn't see the same running back this season that they saw last year. Dillon topped the century mark in a game twice this year and he only had two runs over twenty yards, with a 29-yard scamper against the Chargers being his longest run of the season. Dillon had trouble hitting the hole all season and appeared to shy away from contact at times, actually turning his back to the line of scrimmage on a lot of runs. It didn't help the former Pro Bowler that the Patriots offensive line was reshuffled virtually every week with rookies and backups seeing significant playing time because of injuries. So the big question all offseason is going to be, "Will Corey Dillon return to form in 2006?" If he doesn't, the Patriots better have someone else waiting in the wings or their problems running the football will continue next season. They just can't be a balanced offense with Dillon only running for 3.5 yards per carry. That's the reason the Patriots threw the football 56 percent of the time in 2005.
Kevin Faulk – The Patriots jack-of-all-trades was sorely missed this season when he was forced to sit out eight games with a broken bone in his foot. Faulk only carried the ball 51 times for 145 yards this season but his value to the team is in the passing game. Faulk serves as Tom Brady's safety valve and routinely comes up with huge receptions, especially on third down. Faulk will never be an every-down back who carries the ball 20-25 times a game and the Patriots don't expect him to be. The team has a role for Faulk and he embraces it. Faulk is a great change-of-pace back and receiver out of the backfield and if something happens to Dillon, he's not really the guy who is going to excel as the primary ball carrier. This is another reason the Patriots need to address the running back position this offseason. As good as Faulk is, it can be argued he's more valuable as a receiver than he is a running back. When Faulk is on the field he allows New England to do a lot of different things on offense but pounding the ball 20 times into the teeth of the defense isn't one of them. Faulk also had some key fumbles in 2005, something he will need to correct heading into next year because if there is one way to not get on the field when Bill Belichick is your coach, it's putting the ball on the ground and turning it over. As valuable as he's been over the years, Faulk's fumble in the playoff loss to Denver totally changed the momentum of that game. Still - even though he will be 30 next year - Faulk remains one of the most valuable players on the Patriots roster.
Patrick Pass – Pass had a decent 2005 campaign running for 245 yards and three scores but the hybrid halfback/fullback always seems to miss as many games as he plays. Pass was inactive four times this season and didn't touch the ball in three other games. When Faulk was injured, Pass took over his role but he isn't quite as effective at doing all the things Faulk does for the Patriots offense. Unfortunately for Pass, most people will remember his 2005 season for the fumble against Buffalo where he grabbed his hamstring and let go of the ball. People have always questioned Pass' toughness and that play didn't do much to silence the critics, especially considering Daunte Culpepper tore three ligaments in his knee earlier in the day carrying the football and he didn't lay it on the ground. If the Patriots add a young running back through the draft or free agency, Pass' future with the team becomes a little cloudy. He's shown flashes at times but the Patriots have waited six years to see something out of him and during that time Pass has only managed 505 rushing yards. As usual, Pass will have a fight in training camp to make the roster in 2006 but that won't be anything new for him. He's been in that position ever since he entered the league and one way or another Pass always finds a way to make the final roster. If the Patriots upgrade the running back position, it will be interesting to see what the team does with Pass. He's one of those guys who does a lot of things but doesn't do any one of them well enough to guarantee a roster spot.
Heath Evans – Talk about an up-and-down season. Evans played in six games with the Dolphins – including two starts – then was cut by the team and signed by the Patriots when Faulk and Dillon were injured. He then broke out of the gate with 158 yards rushing in his first two games as a Patriot but as quickly as he burst on the scene, he was gone. Evans only gained 34 yards on the ground the rest of the season and was inactive for three of New England's final five games. Since he was signed off the street, it isn't a surprise that Evans will be in a dogfight to make the team in 2006 but he does have a chance. Richard Seymour was hurt playing fullback against the Chargers and didn't see any time there once he returned. Evans isn't a pure blocking fullback but he's a better blocker than Pass. Right now Pass would get the nod over Evans but if one or two running backs are added in the offseason and the team doesn't sign a fullback, Evans could be retained to play the position. However, one has to figure the odds of Evans making the Patriots final roster in 2006 are slim at best.
Earl Charles – Charles was signed to a future's contract and was allocated to NFL Europe. He's a 6'1, 215-pound back out of Marshall. As a junior with the Thundering Herd, Charles ran for 1,039 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's a long shot to make the team next season but with running back being a weak position for the Patriots, it will be interesting to see what happens if the youngster tears up NFL Europe. If he does, he's got a shot at making the roster but if he doesn't, Charles will most likely just be another body in training camp.
2006 Outlook – The running back position will be one of the hot topics in New England this offseason. While the Patriots may not select a back in the first round of the NFL Draft, they have to upgrade the position either later in the draft or through free agency. Even if Dillon returns to his 2004 form and starts the year off with a bang, what happens if he gets hurt in week four? If the Patriots go into next year with the same crop of backs, they will be in a similar position they were in this season and that's not a good thing for their offense. Right now, Dillon is the only true running back on the Patriots roster. It's time for the team to bring in a young running back that would be a viable option to carry the load if Dillon either gets injured or is nearing the end of the road and can't carry the ball 25 times anymore. The Patriots have won in the past without dominating running games but they can't hang their hat on that. The lack of a productive rushing attack cost them this year every time they played a good team so don't expect Belichick to sit around and do nothing about it. Look for the running back position to get a major overhaul this offseason.
NotesPatriots wide receiver Deion Branch appeared on "Wheel of Fortune" Monday, January 23 as part of NFL Players Week. Each player was teamed-up with fans from their pro-team cities and played for their favorite charities. Branch was playing for the Deion Branch Charitable Foundation, Inc.
To see a video clip of the show and an interview with Branch talking about his experience, go to /mediacenter/index.cfm?ac=videonewsdetail&pid=15235&pcid=84 ...In other TV news, Tom Brady (actually a cartoon version of the Patriots quarterback) will be appearing on the Fox show "Family Guy" this Sunday night at 9:00 PM eastern time.