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2017 Patriots Training Camp Positional Preview: Versatility abounds in new-look backfield

This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Patriots Footall Weekly. To subscribe, click here.

It's not too often that a team can lose a record-setting performer without a significant feeling of trepidation moving forward.

But that's exactly the situation with the Patriots running back position heading into 2017 after the team let 30-year-old LeGarrette Blount and his franchise-record 18 touchdowns run off to Philadelphia in free agency while adding twentysomethings Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to the backfield committee depth chart.

While Blount was leading the NFL with his 18 scores a year ago, the big man's 3.9-yard average in the Patriots pass first-offense was clearly a bit disappointing during a career year that included 299 attempts and 1,161 yards for the eventual Super Bowl champs.

Conversely, the former Bills backup Gillislee led the NFL with 5.7 yards per carry in his chances working behind LeSean McCoy in the Buffalo run-first attack. The restricted free agent could be an ascending talent in his fourth NFL season when he'll likely have the chance to win the lead back role in inaugural campaign as part of Tom Brady's pass-happy attack. Theoretically Gillislee could find more room to put his 5-11, 219-pound skills to use in the Patriots offense. Expecting more than 5.7 yards a carry is probably overly optimistic, but an improvement on Blount's below-average average would seem a safe bet.

Burkhead's addition is an interesting one. He arrives from his backup role with the Bengals on a one-year deal worth more than $3 million. Though that's not huge money, it's more than any Patriots running back has made since Fred Taylor in 2010. It's also a pretty hefty investment in a guy with one career start who was primarily a special teamer until injury forced him into the first two games of his career with double-digit carries over the final two weeks of last season. Burkhead looked good as both a runner and receiver in spring practice in shorts, but he remains a bit of a theoretically-versatile wild card in the backfield breakdown.

If Burkhead is the biggest unknown, then returning veteran and Super Bowl hero James White is now the proven commodity. White's three touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the big game, including the game-winning rushing score in overtime, were historic. That February effort capped a season in which White was second on the Patriots with 60 catches and five touchdown receptions. His work, including 100 total receptions over the last two seasons, earned the former fourth-round pick a three-year contract extension this offseason that gives him the most security of the group.

As appreciative as White is of his good fortune on the field and new-found fortune off it, the playmaking passing back is taking nothing for granted in the new-look New England backfield.

"It's definitely nice but you still have to continue to work to prove yourself," White said this offseason. "Nothing is for certain and I just want to continue to work with this team and get better every day.

"I try to stay locked in at all times. If I get one snap or 100 snaps, I just try to stay locked in at all times. That's a big part of it with our team. You never know who's going to be the big guy with the most plays you just have to stay ready. You need to be ready when you're number is called."

One way that White's role could slightly decrease, which could potentially be a good thing for the team as a whole, would be for veteran Dion Lewis to return to his pre-ACL form that saw him as one of the most electric, breakout stars in the game in the early part of the 2015 season. Returning from the torn ACL late last season, Lewis wasn't able to return to his pre-injury production, even though he did put forth a three-touchdown performance in the postseason against the Texans.

Now more than a full year removed from the injury, if Lewis can return to the dual threat as a runner and receiver that he was in 2015 it would be a boon for an already deep, dangerous offense. If not, it's his role rather than White's that could be more limited.

Beyond the projected top four on the running back depth chart, fullback James Develin would seem most destined for a roster spot. Though he's not a big statistical force, his contributions to the physicality of the offense and on special teams don't go unnoticed. This spring Bill Belichick affectionately compared him to a hockey player who doesn't score a lot of goals, but does a lot of "the unsung, dirty work" going into corners to get the puck.

The rest of the running backs on the training camp depth chart face more uphill battles toward roster spots and roles. D.J. Foster is intriguing as a former undrafted player who spent his entire rookie season on the roster last fall as a passing back, even if he was inactive for 13 games. He has impressive skills as an athletic receiver, but would need one of the veterans to falter to earn a job on the 53-man roster.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, veteran Brandon Bolden has been a contributing, versatile backup for years but the overall depth of the group could be in line to squeeze the respected veteran out of the mix. That's especially true given the depth of the players in the special teams mix from other positions.

Other than being Gronk's brother, practice squad fullback Glenn Gronkowski has little claim to fame in Foxborough. Likewise, undrafted Iowa rookie LeShun Daniels Jr. has obvious NFL size at 6-0, 225 coming off a season with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns to close out his college career, but earning more than a practice squad spot is hard to envision.

Regardless of how all the roster spots and roles play out in the coming weeks and months, it's clear that as is the case at so many other positions the Patriots are well-stocked at running back. Though the group has a new look to it, veteran coach Ivan Fears once again has the versatile talent to put together a committee that should at the very least be an complementary factor for the offense and has the potential to be much more than that.

Key Additions:

Mike Gillislee (RFA, Buffalo); Rex Burkhead (FA, Cincinnati)

Losses:

LeGarrette Blount (FA, Philadelphia)

Key Player:

James White - Coming off two-straight impressive seasons as a pass catcher and a Super Bowl performance for the history books, White's offseason contract extension has him entrenched as a key force in the Patriots potent offensive attack.

Biggest Question:

More than a year removed from a torn ACL, can Dion Lewis return to his playmaking ways of early 2015 that made him for a short stint one of the most unique weapons in the NFL?

Bottom Line:

Despite the loss of the workhorse Blount, New England boasts a committee backfield loaded with youth, potential and versatility that should fit nicely within what's expected to be one of the NFL's premier offenses.

Predicted Starter:

Mike Gillislee

Position Coach:

Ivan Fears, 21st season with Patriots / 27th NFL season

RUNNING BACKS

NO.PLAYER (POS., YEAR)GP/GSATTYDSAVGLONGTDRECYDSAVGTD
38Brandon Bolden (RB, 6th year)14/0144.0402157.50
34Rex Burkhead (RB, 5th year)16/1743444.6172171458.50
39LeShun Daniels Jr. (RB, rookie)          
46James Develin (FB, 5th year)16/4000.0003186.00
27D.J. Foster (RB, 2nd year)3/07243.470122.00
35Mike Gillislee (RB, 5th year)15/11015775.74489505.61
47Glenn Gronkowski (FB, 1st year)1/0000.000000.00
33Dion Lewis (RB, 6th year)7/5642834.415017945.50
28James White (RB, 4th year)16/4391664.3160605519.25

Stats for 2016 - bold indicates projected starter
-with previous team*

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