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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Apr 16 - 02:00 PM | Thu Apr 18 - 11:55 AM

2024 Free Agent Forecast: Running Back

The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 13, and with it, the advent of 2024’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 running back Ezekiel Elliot
Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliot

Patriots Free Agents: Ezekiel Elliott (UFA)

Notable External Free Agents: Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Tony Pollard, D'Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, Devin Singletary, AJ Dillon, Zack Moss

Positional Analysis: Among the many signs that the Patriots offensive roster talent had depreciated to a sunken place was their lack of depth at running back in the 2023 season.

Ezekiel Elliott (184 attempts) and Rhamondre Stevenson (156) had the weight of the entire running game on their shoulders. The duo combined to carry the ball on 340 of New England's 375 designed runs. Zeke was all they had left when Stevenson went down with a high-ankle injury late in the year. Plus, the Pats balked at having a primary receiving back, a role that has been so productive in their old offense over the years – an odd approach at the position, indeed.

Although we'd generally advocate for the interchangeability of most running backs, the Pats would certainly prefer to have more depth at running back heading into 2024. Furthermore, they could use more explosiveness to go along with their power backs while needing to decide on Elliott's future as the primary backup to Stevenson, who will hopefully have a bounce-back year.

After signing with the Patriots in August, Elliott was a consummate pro after being released by the Cowboys last offseason, which is worth something. The former Cowboys star had a great attitude toward a forgotten season, with many teammates pointing to his positive vibes and strong leadership. Despite the Patriots record, Zeke was still willing to step up after Stevenson's injury, encouraging the Pats coaching staff to feed him touches when he could've been thinking about setting himself up to go into the offseason fresh with an eye toward his next contract.

For those reasons, fans might be encouraged to retain Elliott, who shouldn't cost much after it took until training camp for him to sign last season. However, Elliott's value added as a ball carrier is diminishing considerably. The Pats running back posted a career-low 2.9 yards after contact per rush, only producing 24 missed tackles on 184 attempts (28th among 31 RBs).

Elliott's best days are clearly behind him as he was one of the league's least efficient backs, producing -0.23 expected points added per rush. Like any back, Zeke's production would improve with better blocking. Still, his ability to break tackles and run through defenses is well below where it was years ago. From this perspective, bringing back Elliott on a team-friendly deal to be a part of a committee wouldn't be a bad move, but there are better moves out there.

Regarding the other free-agent running backs, it's all a matter of your perspective on running back value as a whole. There are some big names in this year's free-agent class, including former rushing champs Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, and Austin Ekeler.

The NFL landscape is devaluing running backs. With at least five premier running backs in free agency and teams reluctant to pay them on second and third contracts, could the RB market suddenly become a market inefficiency from which the Patriots could benefit? In other words, New England gets a steal by zigging while the rest of the league zags.

For a team that needs offensive firepower and wants to run the ball under new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, pairing Stevenson with another factor back is enticing. Furthermore, the Pats can't get to April's draft with too many needs. They need to fill some holes in free agency because they don't have enough draft capital to address everything on offense.

Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson
Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson

For the running backs don't matter truthers like myself, the best course of action for the Patriots to bolster their running back depth would be to sign an efficient, low-cost back like AJ Dillon or Zack Moss while drafting depth on day three of the draft to roll with Rhamondre Stevenson, Dillon/Moss/Zeke, a rookie, and Kevin Harris.

However, I'm going against every fiber of my being by saying there is sound logic to making more of an investment to upgrade the backfield. Since they have Stevenson as RB1, pairing Rhamondre with a more explosive change-of-pace back, such as Pollard or Ekeler, is my preference. Pollard was much better as a platoon back rather than an RB1 in Dallas, while Ekeler brings value as a receiver, and both are more big-play backs than between-the-tackles power backs like Stevenson.

The Patriots shouldn't overextend for any aging running back free agency. Still, if there's an upgrade to be had on a discount, there's plenty of talent in free agency to fill out the backfield and take it off the needs list.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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