Over the course of the past month there has been a lot of talk tying the Patriots to various free agent running backs. Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott have both been in for visits, and various national writers have connected New England to Dalvin Cook.
To this point there haven't been any signings, but in the meantime the Patriots donned pads for the first time this summer and a pair of second-year running backs got a chance to shine. With Rhamondre Stevenson spending most Monday's practice running on the lower rehab field, Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong joined J.J. Taylor as the lone options running the ball. Both showed some flashes of ability as the physicality took a significant step up.
Most of the practice featured work on the running game and the blocking up front was done at a pretty high level of intensity. Operating behind a makeshift offensive line, Harris and Strong ran with some power and agility at times. The best work was done toward the end of practice near the goal line as Harris was able to fight through the traffic to squeeze into the end zone from the 2, and Strong displayed a terrific jump cut in the hole on a carry from the 8 that wound up picking up about 5 yards.
It wasn't perfect as both were bottled up at times as well, but for two young guys looking to state their case as Stevenson's backup it was an opportunity to show their stuff.
"It felt good getting the pads on today," Harris said after practice. "Running with the shells is tough, but we're working together and the line did a great job."
The line's job was made more difficult by the fact that Trent Brown joined Stevenson on the lower field (Matthew Judon spent most of the day their as well). Then Cole Strange got tangled up with Lawrence Guy during a blocking drill and appeared to suffer a left knee injury. He spent a lot of time with medical personnel, did some light running and work on a blocking sled, but did not return.
That left the group of Riley Reiff, Atonio Mafi, David Andrews, Bill Murray and Conor McDermott to open holes for the backs. They did so on occasion, although pass protection was more of an issue. Harris, Strong and Taylor basically rotated throughout and made the best of the situation.
"I thought it was a huge opportunity for me and Kevin," Strong said. "It was my time to show what I can do with just the three of us rotating."
The highlight of the morning came late as practice closed with a handful of reps near the goal line. Strong showed a nice second effort in spinning off a couple of bodies before landing in the end zone. Prior to that he was met with good force by rookie Marte Mapu before he arrived at the goal line.
The defensive front was impressive as well, particularly Davon Godchaux and Deatrich Wise, who collapsed the pocket consistently off play action attempts.
"It's man up or shut up," Godchaux said with a smile when discussing the goal line reps. "I look forward to those plays. As a defensive lineman you definitely don't want to get pushed backward. You want to make sure you're going forward. [Harris] is a big, strong, physical guy trying take advantage of his opportunities."
It was a good start to the physical portion of camp, and for the young running backs a chance to prove there is no need to add a veteran to the mix just yet.
Beyond the running game, here are one man's observations from Day 5 of training camp.
- Ty Montgomery missed his third straight day of practice after colliding with Terez Hall on Thursday. Coincidentally, Hall was not spotted at practice on Monday. The same could be said of Jake Andrews, who missed his second straight day. On the flip side, rookie Kayshon Boutte returned after missing Sunday's practice. Mike Onwenu (ankle) and Cody Davis (knee) remain on PUP while Calvin Anderson remains on NFI.
- Mac Jones donned a brace on his left knee for the first workout in full pads. Fellow quarterbacks Bailey Zappe and Trace McSorley were not wearing braces.
- Judon was not in pads at the start of the workout and joined Brown and Stevenson on the lower field. By the end of practice he was back on the sideline but was a spectator on Monday.
- There was some concern on the field in the aftermath of Strange's injury. Trainers worked with him on the field for a bit before they proceeded to the area inside the training trailer in the far end zone of the left practice field. David Andrews came over and tapped the guard on the head as he was being tended to, and Bill Belichick spoke briefly with trainers as they headed toward the trailer. He had his brace removed and worked on some agility drills for a bit before returning to the trailer for further medical evaluation. Eventually he put the brace back on and joined the offense for the remainder of practice but did not see any more action. He was moving well and the fact that he remained on the field is a positive sign.
- Tackle Andrew Steuber saw some time as an extra tight end during some of the short-yardage running looks. With Matt Sokol, Andrew Firkser and Johnny Lumpkin vying for roles as extra tight ends, it's worth noting that only Lumpkin (6-6, 268) has the size to be a force as a blocker. Having the flexibility to use Stueber or another tackle in the role could save a roster spot.
- Marcus Jones, Demario Douglas and Myles Bryant handled a number of punts during the day. Bryant had trouble securing a couple of them. Bryce Baringer was impressive with his hang time once again while Corliss Waitman struggled a bit with his consistency.
- The offense seemed to be working on drawing the defense offside with Mac Jones using his cadence effectively twice, catching Wise and Sam Roberts in the neutral zone. Both defensive linemen took laps.
- Just before the start of the goal line period, Belichick gathered the entire team for an extended talk. The coach was animated while addressing the team for about two minutes before the players returned to work.
- The defense was on point on a couple of pass attempts, the first on a blitz that forced Jones to throw early to Harris and the throw sailed wide and off the running back's hands. It was a throw that could have been caught but was off the mark. It also came on a play where Jones executed a play action fake, but Harris was on the opposite side, causing the timing to be off. Harris talked after practice about working on improving his speed and pass catching throughout the offseason. He's caught several passes in camp but was unable to corral that one.
- In addition to Strange, wide receiver Scotty Washington spent time in the training trailer, and Brad Hawkins was slow getting up after a play and limped to the sideline. On the final play of the day Bill Murray limped away as the majority of the team made their way to the hills for some conditioning runs.
- In addition to Harris and Strong, Jabrill Peppers, Wise and Godchaux all spent time chatting with the media.
- Practice continues on Tuesday with the Patriots set to get started at 12:30 p.m. Gates will open to the public at 11 a.m. but as always please check with Patriots.com for the latest updates to the training camp schedule.