The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 17, and with it, the advent of 2021's free agency marketplace. Leading up to that day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective. Today we take a look at the running backs.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS
James White, Rex Burkhead
OTHER NOTABLE FREE AGENTS
Todd Gurley (ATL), Adrian Peterson (DET), Le'Veon Bell (KC), Leonard Fournette (TB), James Conner (PIT)
Aaron Jones (GB), Jamaal Williams (GB), Malcolm Brown (LAR), Mike Davis (CAR).
With both White and Burkhead hitting free agency, running back will be a position that must be addressed this offseason one way or another. Burkhead's injury makes it more possible the team can keep him around while he recovers.
White is a lot more complicated and had more catches than any other free agent running back despite a down year by his standards statistically. As a beloved teammate, leader and productive passing-down back, replacing White would force the team outside their previous comfort zone of developing in-house passing-down backs. Previously, the Patriots had done a good job of keeping the position fresh via the draft and affordable free agent flyers like Burkhead, LeGarrette Blount and Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Attacking the position in free agency hasn't really been their thing but they're in a bit of a unique spot this offseason.
The team has entered most recent seasons with at least four quality NFL running backs and while Brandon Bolden's return provides some versatile depth, losing White and/or Burkhead would leave a major hole in their offensive backfield, even though Sony Michel and Damien Harris are a really solid one-two early-down punch.
The best external fit would be Green Bay's Aaron Jones, the most balanced and versatile back in free agency. He can flex out as a wide receiver and would offer the easiest transition from White. His Packer teammate Jamaal Williams wouldn't be a bad consolation prize. The Rams Malcolm Brown had a career-high 23 catches in 2020 and could be an option.
The Panthers' Mike Davis was effective as Christian McCaffrey's backup, scoring eight touchdowns and putting up over 1,000 total yards. He's kicked around the league since 2015 and could jump at the chance to have some stability in a place like New England without breaking the bank. His 59 catches are appetizing.
The easiest solution for the Patriots is of course to bring back both White and Burkhead and then continue to build depth at the position through the draft while monitoring the potential development of J.J. Taylor. But there are some intriguing outside options for them to consider and their hand could be forced if White and/or Burkhead depart.