FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It's no surprise that the Patriots entered their 2021 training camp loaded at running back. New England traditionally carries several of them throughout any given season.
The biggest question this year revolved around the future of former first-round draft choice Sony Michel, whose fifth-year contract option (for 2022) was not picked up by the Patriots at the deadline earlier this year. He would have finished out this season with New England and become a free agent had the team not traded him to the Los Angeles Rams yesterday, thereby giving us an early answer to the question.
That brings us back to the overriding question that always seems to follow the New England backfield – how many backs will the team keep during the regular season?
In my estimation, it's entirely possible they'll find a way to work with all of the remaining six players, including fullback Jakob Johnson.
The Patriots began camp in late July with eight running backs. That group got trimmed to seven with the release of veteran Tyler Gaffney earlier this month. Gaffney had been attempting a long-shot return to the NFL and New England after a brief career in minor league baseball. The roster thinned further this week with Michel's move to L.A.
Michel was having a solid camp – maybe the best of his four with the club – but given his extensive injury history and inconsistent performances over the past three seasons, he was viewed by many observers (including the Patriots Unfiltered crew here on the website) as a potential trade candidate.
The emergence over the past couple of weeks of rookie draft choice Rhamondre Stevenson may have helped give the Patriots more peace of mind in deciding to deal Michel. Stevenson has scored touchdowns twice in each of the first two Patriots preseason games this month, while displaying a rare combination of speed, power, shiftiness, and an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Though he still has plenty to learn and improve upon at this level, the rookie Stevenson looks like a capable understudy for Damien Harris, the third-year man who'll now almost assuredly see the majority of carries, at least early on this season.
Harris, though, has his own injury history which has limited his availability during his first couple of seasons in Foxborough. When healthy, however, as he's been thus far in 2021, Harris is capable of being a bona fide lead back. As camp got underway in July, head coach Bill Belichick even acknowledged – which he rarely does for this particular position – that Harris "has an opportunity to compete for a lead spot."
It's unusual to hear Belichick speak about a ball carrier in such terms because, more often than not, the Patriots tend to approach the running back position with a committee of players, any number of whom could get the starting nod in any given week. And like returning co-captain James White, they are often heavily involved in the passing game. After a difficult 2020 season, White appears to have overcome a slow start to this year's camp and looks very much like the reliable pass-catching back he's been throughout most of his Patriots career.
Meanwhile, second-year player J.J. Taylor continues to make a case for himself as a solid runner, pass-catcher, and kick returner, adding versatile value beyond his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. Taylor saw sporadic action as an undrafted rookie last season, mostly early and late in the campaign, and looks even more comfortable in New England's offense this summer.
Of all the backs, perhaps elder statesman Brandon Bolden is in the most precarious position. Bolden has dealt with some type of injury that has limited him this preseason, and in his ninth season, he still offers special teams value. Will that be enough to keep his spot on this roster? It could be difficult, especially with so many other special teams-centric players at other positions on the team. Bolden's been on the chopping block before (it's how he wound up with Miami for one season a couple years back), yet he somehow seems to find a way to stick around in the end.
Finally, with New England's tight end position still dealing with numerous injuries, Johnson provides potential overlap versatility from the fullback spot. He's shown marked improvement over the past couple of seasons since the retirement of James Develin, plus, the Patriots often have a traditional fullback on their roster. So, Johnson may have a good chance to continue his development here in New England.
The final roster cutdown comes on Tuesday, August 31, when all NFL teams must get down to 53 players.