INDIANAPOLIS -- The Patriots seemingly solidified their running back position for the foreseeable future last April with the selection of Georgia running back Sony Michel in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
And though he battled knee issues along the way, Michel had an impressive rookie campaign that included 931 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season and another 336 yards and six scores in a three-game run to a Super Bowl ring.
So while the Patriots scouts are studying prospects this week at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, the running back position wouldn’t necessarily be considered one of New England’s biggest needs.
But with the Patriots holding 12 selections in the 2019 NFL Draft, the team has the flexibility to go in pretty much any direction in draft weekend. Throw in the fact that the defending Super Bowl Champions probably don’t have room on the roster for 12 new players – especially considering that the team had five of its nine draft picks miss their rookie season on injured reserve, guys who’ll be in the mix for roster spots and roles this coming summer.
So, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have the flexibility to be creative with their selections, including possibly using a pick on a potential impact player dealing with an injury that might prevent him from being ready to play as a rookie.
No player might better fit that description than Stanford running back Bryce Love.
Love was the runner-up to Baker Mayfield for the Heisman Trophy in 2017 after rushing for 2,100-plus yards (8.1 avg.) and 19 touchdowns in a breakout season for the Cardinal and seen as an elite NFL prospect heading into his senior season.
But 2018 didn’t go well for Love as he battled ankle injuries that kept him to a mere 739 yards and six touchdowns before he tore his ACL in the Stanford regular season finale against Cal.
After having surgery in December, Love is now targeting a return to full health by midway through his first NFL training camp this summer and is projected by many as a possible late-round prospect. A team like the Patriots could get value from the big-play machine – he had a run of 30-plus yards in a record 13 straight games in 2017 – even if he were to have limited availability as a rookie or worst-case scenario missed the entire season on NFI.
The ACL injury isn’t the only question around Love, as some wonder if his 5-9, 202-pound frame can hold up as a top back in the NFL. He also tried to prove himself a better option as a pass-catcher in 2018, when he had a career-high 20 receptions.
“Size is not a skill,” the affable Love said Thursday at his Combine press conference. “At the end of the day if you can play, you can play.
“Injuries are part of the game. ACLs aren’t what they used to be. When I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.”
Saying he has “no regrets” about returning to Stanford for another season despite the injury and drop in draft status, Love thinks he will bring elite explosiveness to the NFL team that drafts him once he’s healthy.
“I bring playmaking,” Love said of his running style. “My mentality is that I want to be the best at it, the best to ever do it.
“I just have the mindset to be great. I truly believe I can be.”
If he achieves that goal, it will likely be for a team that got Love as a late-round draft steal. Maybe, just maybe, the pick-rich Patriots could be that team.