The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 15, and with it, the advent of 2023's free agency marketplace. Leading up to that day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective. Today, we analyze the running backs.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS: Damien Harris
NOTABLE EXTERNAL FREE AGENTS: Jerick McKinnon, Boston Scott, Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead
The Patriots have an interesting offseason ahead at running back, a position in a transition period right now.
Although lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson is poised for another ultra-productive campaign, the Patriots need to make a tough decision on Damien Harris, evaluate whether or not their second-year backs are ready to take on larger workloads, and are still looking for a permanent post-James White solution to the receiving back role.
Harris was the lone bright spot from the 2019 rookie class and has emerged as an energizing force in the locker room. The former third-round pick genuinely enjoys being in New England and is emerging as a leader in the locker room. However, he has struggled to stay healthy in two of his three seasons where he was a contributor, and there's a larger conversation about the success rate of giving running backs a second contract.
After sharing the backfield at Alabama and New England, Harris doesn't have the miles on the odometer like some high-volume backs. He has been among the more efficient between-the-tackles runners since breaking out in his second season.
According to Over the Cap, Harris projects to earn a free-agent contract worth $5 million annually on the open market. The contract itself is doable for a productive player who is a growing voice inside the locker room, and it would maintain the backfield depth behind Stevenson for the near future.
However, second-year running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris are the more cost-effective options. The Pats used two day-three selections at the position a year ago to recycle their depth, knowing Harris was in a contract year. If they hit on at least one of those picks, the shrewd thing to do is turn over the backup roles to the younger, fresher, and cheaper options.
Strong was drafted because he has breakaway speed and the skill set to play more in the passing game potentially. When given a chance, the 2022 fourth-rounder flashed that quickness and big-play ability with a 44-yard run against the Cardinals and a smooth lateral cut to get into some space the following week in Vegas. As a runner, there's something worth developing there, and the Pats were working with Strong in the passing game over the summer. Still, his ability to create quick separation at the top of routes and be a true impact player in the passing game is unknown.
As for the younger Harris, his wrecking ball running style produced a few notable runs against Arizona, and he has some potential as an early-down back who can spell Stevenson in the power back mold.
The bottom line is that the Patriots second-year backs showed enough promise to allow Harris to test the free-agent market while feeling comfortable that Strong and Kevin Harris can take over.
Along with allowing Strong an opportunity to emerge as a receiving weapon, the Pats also have veteran Ty Montgomery under contract. Montgomery emerged as a serviceable receiving back during camp, but his season ended quickly due to injury. With the veteran as an insurance policy, day-three options in the draft include Kansas State's Deuce Vaughn and USC's Travis Dye to compete with Strong and Montgomery for the role.
Although we wouldn't advocate for it, all conversations surrounding the running back position must mention Alabama do-it-all tailback Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs has electric explosiveness as a big-play threat from anywhere on the field, working from several different alignments for Bill O'Brien last season. The Alabama product is more than just a running back, running routes from the slot at times and carrying the football on schemed touches as well as traditional runs.
New England would need to use a top-50 pick in the upcoming draft on Gibbs, which doesn't seem wise given their needs at other positions. But one would expect O'Brien to vouch for Gibbs's impact, and he could play alongside Stevenson as an offensive weapon due to his versatility.
Jerick McKinnon would be an excellent pickup in free agency, but he's now a captain with the Chiefs, so there's a good chance he will return to Kansas City. Philly's Boston Scott and veteran Giovani Bernard are also available, while old friend Rex Burkhead is a free agent again.
With a non-mobile quarterback under center for the foreseeable future, the value of having a chain-moving safety blanket out of the backfield is huge. It's essentially adding a scrambling quarterback element to the offense, while the good route-runners can be mismatches against linebackers in the passing game.
The Patriots need to find a replacement for James White, a sneaky void that is very important to the style of offense played in New England.