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Combine Prospects: Heisman-winner Henry among backs fitting Patriots needs

OFFENSE: OL | RB | TE | WR

DEFENSE: CB | DL | LB | S

Check out some photos from the first day of the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.

INDIANAPOLIS -- In recent years the running back position has been a committee-based somewhat forgotten part of the Patriots offense.

The group has worked in the overwhelming shadow of the Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski-led passing attack.

With the likes of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis the backfield has been led by low-level trade additions and futures contract signings, especially after former draft picks Shane Vereen (second round, 2011) and Stevan Ridley (third round, 2011) were allowed to walk via free agency last spring.

In fact the Patriots have let a number of running backs leave in free agency, with Danny Woodhead and Blount also allowed to take their skills elsewhere on relatively low-money deals.

And New England hasn't taken a running back with its first pick since Laurence Maroney (21st overall) in 2006.

But after Lewis and Blount landed on IR last fall and New England was forced to sign Steven Jackson out of retirement to add even just a big body to the Patriots backfield heading toward the postseason, the need for a big-time ball carrier might be as high has it's been in years.

Brady isn't getting any younger. And when the Broncos assaulted the NFL's 2015 leading touchdown passer, New England had no answer in terms of either pass protection or balancing out the offense with some running.

Blount and Jackson are both free agents. The former may not be back, while the latter is likely to return to the retirement he began last season. Though, the Boston Herald reported on Wednesday, citing a source, that Blount and the Patriots have mutual interest in continuing their working relationship moving forward.

The depth chart is solid in terms of a passing back with Lewis, James White and versatile veteran Brandon Bolden in the mix. But there is no obvious bigger back assuming Blount departs, and certainly no lead back on the roster at this point. So it's likely Bill Belichick's team will need to address that need this spring in either free agency, the draft or both.

According to NFLDraftScout.com as many as 26 backs are graded as being draft-worthy this spring. A group of 29 running backs was invited to this year's Scouting Combine, including fullbacks.

While the draft value of running backs has been debated in recent years, including a couple years where no runner was taken in the first round, there is a rejuvenated belief that if the guy is good enough then he warrants a high pick at the position. Todd Gurley went to the Rams in the first round last year despite coming off an ACL injury and went on to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award with a 1,100-yard season.

The consensus top back in the 2016 draft class is Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott (6-0, 225). Coming off a season in which he churned out more than 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns, his second 1,800-yard season in as many years, the ground-based playmaker could have a chance to go in the top half of the first round, or even in the top 10.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock believes the Ohio State underclassman is clearly the best back in the class and a clear first-round pick.

"Ezekiel Elliott is just about as fast sideways as he is forward and he's probably going to run 4.45 at 225 pounds. So he's got great speed. But his lateral acceleration, burst, lower body toughness ... all of those things add up to me. First round," Mayock declared.

Whether the Patriots would invest a first-round pick in a running back at this point is, frankly, a moot point, given that New England does not currently have a selection in the opening round.

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But that doesn't mean Belichick's team couldn't fill its top need with a potential top prospect, as the second-best back in the class is generally considered to be Heisman Trophy-winning Alabama junior-entry Derrick Henry who is seen by most as a second-round selection.

Henry helped the Tide to a national title last fall and could be seen as the biggest back in the draft, both literally and figuratively, given his record-setting 2,200-plus yards as well as his Combine running back-high 247 pounds on his 6-3 frame. He was actually shocked with the weigh-in, believing it was mostly water weight as he tried to hydrate, and that he would return to his usual girth in the low 240s.

Henry epitomized the big-bodied workhorse at Alabama, including 395 of his career 602 carries coming last season. Some question his upright frame and the wear-and-tear he took, but there is no questioning his ability to both deliver and take a pounding.

Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome was asked if there was a downside to Henry's height and had a humorously-simple response.

"Chuck Muncie was pretty good," Newsome said, referencing the 6-3, 227-pound former Saints and Chargers runner who had a 4.3 career average and nearly 7,000 yards in nine NFL seasons.

As respected a GM as there is in the game today, Newsome went on to say of Henry, "He won the Heisman and helped Alabama win the national championship. That's all good for me, man."

Henry was the biggest name to take to a podium on the Combine's opening day, attention that might not coincide with his second-round draft projections. But he doesn't seem to be too worried about such things or the belief that Elliot is the top dog in the running back class.

"You just let if fuel you. The only thing you can control is just going out there and competing and doing the best you can do," Henry said. "Right now I'm just going through this process and we'll see where it goes."

"I feel like I can do better at everything. The questions are about my quickness, catching the ball, my protections. I definitely want to get better at that, but I know I need to work on that.

"I approach the situation as an underdog and working my way up. That's how I approach every day."

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Another bigger back, Arkansas projected second-round junior Alex Collins (5-11, 217), took a bit more braggadocios approach to his draft status.

"I honestly feel like I'm the best running back in the draft," Collins proclaimed. "I feel like I can compete with the best."

Collins split time with fellow Combine prospect Jonathan Williams (6-1, 223) for his first two years with the Razorbacks, but the latter missed 2015 with a foot injury. That allowed Collins to notch not only his third straight 1,000-yard season, but finish with a career-best 1,577 yards, 5.8-yard average and 20 touchdowns working behind one of the bigger offensive lines in college football.

In a tidbit that might endear the powerful runner to Belichick, Collins revealed that football isn't his only athletic passion.

"I love lacrosse," Collins said of a sport he played in high school and believes he could have gotten a scholarship in had he chosen to go a different direction.

Beyond his obvious skills with the ball in his hands, Collins also thinks he's a pro-ready back in terms of the passing game despite catching just 27 balls in three collegiate seasons.

"I take pride in pass protection. It's a big part of my game and I'm good at it. I know what I'm doing in the passing game. I look forward to proving myself," Collins said "I didn't drop any balls that were thrown to me."

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Other backs with the potential to go in the second or third rounds – the Patriots are currently scheduled to make the 60th overall selection – include Utah's Devontae Booker (5-11, 212), Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon (5-10, 215), Indiana'sJordan Howard (6-1, 225, Williams, Alabama's Kenyan Drake (6-1, 210), UCLA's Paul Perkins (5-10, 210) and Notre Dame's* .J. Prosise* (6-1, 220).

Williams averaged better than 5 yards a carry in his first three seasons at Arkansas before the foot injury sidelined him this fall, when he was elected one of his team's captains despite being lost in summer action. He had 1,190 carries in 2014.

Though he admitted that his visions for his senior season were dashed by the foot injury, he thinks he actually became a better, more vocal leader through the experience. Now, he's ready to prove after sharing time with Collins that he might be an even better pro than college prospect.

"I definitely think I can be an every-down back," Williams said, recalling that his first two touchdowns at Arkansas as a freshman under then-coach Bobby Petrino were actually 70-yard touchdown receptions.

The work with Collins also pushed each in a way that should be of benefit at the next level.

"We helped each other become better," Williams said. "We had two NFL backs in the backfield. We had to compete every day and make every rep count."

One of the running back prospects from the latter rounds that might jump off the page is Florida's Kelvin Taylor (5-10, 205). He's the son of former Jaguars star and short-time Patriots back Fred Taylor. While Taylor may be a bit smaller than the big back New England might be looking for, he certainly has impressive bloodlines and grew up learning from a true professional.

Taylor notched 2,100 yards and 23 touchdowns in three years with the Gators, including 1,035 and 13 scores last fall. College production aside, he feels like his entire life has helped him prepare for a job in the NFL.

"I was very fortunate to have a father playing in the NFL," Taylor acknowledged. "One thing my dad always drilled in my head is you really have to be a student of the game to be a great player on any level, but especially this level. You really have to be a student of the game and I feel like I'm a great student of the game and I'm just ready to be great, just start working."

If the Patriots were to wait until the latter rounds of the draft to seek out a diamond ball carrier in the rough, there will still be some options to consider. Auburn's Peyton Barber (5-10, 225), USC's Tre Madden (6-0, 225), South Carolina's Brandon Wilds (6-1, 215) and Marshall's Devon Johnson (6-1, 253) certainly have the size for the NFL job.

Barber was a surprise early-entry despite 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall. He decided to enter the draft due to the fact that his mother is currently, as he describes it, "homeless. Right now she's staying with my sister. It's her and her three kids staying an apartment back home."

He uses that situation as motivation.

"I have something to strive for, to push for," Barber said, admitting he has plenty to work on. "I feel I can improve every part of my game."

Wilds is a bit more of the cocky, confident type. Wilds never had more than 123 carries or 567 yards in his four seasons for the Gamecocks, but there may not be a more cocksure back in the class.

"I pretty much can do it all," Wilds said simply. "I would have liked to have been used more. I brought it up a few times, but I'm just a player."

Wilds actually compares himself to NFL stars Matt Forte and Arian Foster, believing like them he will surprise many with his professional production. Time will if he has the talent and production to back up his confidence.

From true Heisman winners to confident low-round projects, the Patriots will clearly have a wide array of potential-filled big backs to draw from on draft weekend this April. Maybe, just maybe, Brady will end up with the workhorse back he hasn't had since the days of Corey Dillon's record-setting, Super Bowl-winning run through New England.

OFFENSE: OL | RB | TE | WR

DEFENSE: CB | DL | LB | S

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