The Patriots held their first minicamp practice at Gillette Stadium on Monday, and we can now explain one veteran's absence.
According to the league's transaction wire, New England has officially released veteran running back James Robinson. Robinson, who wasn't at Monday's mandatory practice, was waived after inking a two-year deal with the Pats in free agency in March.
Although it was only a few OTA practices, Robinson's lack of explosiveness was noticeable, with his extra gear waning since a severe Achilles injury ended his 2021 season. Robinson returned last season but was traded by the Jaguars to the Jets and then released by New York.
Unfortunately, Achilles injuries are often a challenging recovery for running backs, so it's not surprising that Robinson isn't returning to his pre-Achilles tear form as an NFL All-Rookie first-team honoree in the 2020 season.
As for the fallout in the Pats backfield, Robinson's release leaves five running backs on the roster: Rhamondre Stevenson, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor, and do-it-all playmaker Ty Montgomery. Stevenson is the unquestioned lead back. But his 279 touches and 66.4% usage rate took a toll on the Pats power back last season.
Without a reliable spell back due to an injury to Damien Harris, Stevenson wore down over the course of the season. The team did not re-sign Harris in free agency, opting to turn the backfield over to Stevenson, two 2022 draft picks in Harris and Strong, and added Robinson for depth.
With Robinson no longer in the fold, Montgomery is the current favorite to take over as the primary receiving back. An early-season injury knocked him out for the year in 2022, but Montgomery was on track to contribute with a strong showing last summer as a pass-catcher.
The Patriots have used Montgomery from multiple alignments as a Swiss Army knife, presenting intriguing formational flexibility. The veteran is again emerging this spring as a safety blanket for the Pats quarterbacks on various short throws. Montgomery might not be a big-play threat at this stage of his career, but he has solid hands and burst to test underneath zones and seems to have a knack for being in the right spots.
Although Montgomery could be a reliable receiving back, it still leaves a void in the running game behind Stevenson, as a second back needs to emerge to carry the football. The Pats prepped for this scenario by selecting Strong (fourth round) and Harris (sixth round) in the 2022 draft, so the two second-year running backs have a prime opportunity to take the mantle.
Harris looks slimmer and more explosive this spring, showing off some burst out of the backfield. Strong, on the other hand, had flashes in his rookie season, albeit on only nine touches, and has 4.37-speed that would hopefully add a big-play element to the offense.
Robinson's release could also open the door for the Patriots to sign another veteran running back, and a few notable players are available. Although recently released Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook is an intriguing name, Cook's price point makes the move highly unlikely. The Pats have shown interest in running back Leonard Fournette in the past, who is still a free agent, as is Ezekiel Elliott, Rex Burkhead, Mark Ingram, and Kenyan Drake.
Ultimately, the Patriots made the Strong and Harris selections knowing they'd need to turn over the depth chart behind Stevenson with Damien Harris heading into a contract year.
New England's second-year running backs should now get the chance to take on more prominent roles.
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