The Patriots are resetting their running back depth chart behind Rhamondre Stevenson, with New England's lead back coming off a breakout season in 2022.
Although Stevenson is the unquestioned RB1 in Foxboro heading into his third season, the Patriots didn't retain Damien Harris in free agency this offseason, opting to add veteran James Robinson to the mix instead. However, Robinson was released after it became clear this spring that the former Jags and Jets running back didn't have the same explosiveness as before an Achilles injury ended his 2021 season.
With Robinson no longer in the mix, New England now turns the backfield depth over to 2022 draft selections Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, practice-squadder J.J. Taylor, and do-it-all vet Ty Montgomery, who is once again making a push to contribute this season.
Montgomery emerged as a replacement for receiving back James White in New England's backfield last spring and summer. Unfortunately, Montgomery's standout training camp was derailed by injuries in the preseason finale and then in the regular-season opener.
The 30-year-old missed the final 16 games of his first season with the team, forcing Stevenson into a three-down role. Stevenson was highly productive with 1,461 scrimmage yards, including 69 catches for 421 yards. But the 279 touches and 66.4% snap rate ultimately negatively impacted Stevenson's effectiveness for the stretch run.
Along with the second-year running backs from the 2022 draft class, Montgomery is a candidate to spell Stevenson in the passing game, where the Pats top RB accumulated 447 offensive snaps a year ago, contributing to the wear and tear that wore him down later in the year.
In an interview with the Six Rings and Football Things Podcast earlier this offseason, former running backs coach Ivan Fears put his support behind Montgomery.
"I think he has a great chance to the be the third-down back and take some of the load off Rhamondre [Stevenson], so [Rhamondre] can be fresh when he we really need him on first and second down carrying the ball as the featured guy," said Fears. "We need some help for Rhamondre and I think Ty is looking really good right now. He's healthy."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick added before Tuesday's minicamp practice, "Ty looks healthy, really healthy. He gives us a lot of position versatility on offense and in the kicking game. He's a smart kid, has good size, explosive speed. It's good to have him out there; he can do a lot of different things. We look forward to having him."
The Patriots primarily used Montgomery out of the backfield last training camp and preseason, with all 20 offensive snaps coming at running back in his lone regular-season appearance in 2022. But Montgomery's background as a wide receiver makes him a versatile playmaker. With injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton, we've seen Montgomery play his fair share of receiver this spring.
Montgomery doesn't catch the eye as a big-play threat necessarily. But he is a heady underneath target with good short-area burst and trustworthy hands. Montgomery beats linebackers to the edge or running across the field, has some quickness inside to work option routes, and is a reliable safety blanket who seems to be where quarterbacks expect.
With a long lineage of third-down backs thriving in New England, Montgomery's projected role as a quick outlet and mismatch against linebackers on passing downs is huge for quarterback Mac Jones.
After day two of mandatory minicamp, Montgomery explained his journey back from an injury-plagued 2022 season and his potential in the Patriots offense this season.
"I love playing ball. It's really good [to be back]. Nobody likes to get hurt, or I should say injured. I love playing, and I'm happy to be here," Montgomery said. "I'm comfortable being here, I'm comfortable playing football, and I love being a Patriot."
How does Montgomery prepare to play multiple spots in Bill O'Brien's offensive system as a running back and wide receiver?
"I wake up, pray to god, thank Jesus, eat breakfast, I go to meetings, I come to practice, I work my butt off, and then I recover," Montgomery told Patriots.com.
After spending last season on injured reserve, Montgomery used last year as a learning experience as he works on his overall mental health, "as long as I can stay stress-free and have fun, I know I'm going to feel the love," Montgomery later added.
Based on the way-too-early takeaways from spring practices, Montgomery is the current favorite to help better manage Rhamondre Stevenson's workload in the passing game. Ideally, the Pats would also have another early-down back in the mix to replace Damien Harris.
Spring practices heavily emphasize the passing game because they are non-padded sessions, so we'll need to wait until training camp for a more definitive view of the running game. Still, second-year backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris are also getting opportunities.
In the team's first workout since releasing Robinson, Strong had one of his most active practices with roughly a half-dozen catches working out of the backfield. Strong's homerun speed adds another dimension, and that showed up on a quick-twitch angle route out of the backfield in 7-on-7s. Strong has also caught screen passes and worked swing and wheel routes to test the corner.
As for Harris, the 2022 sixth-rounder is in terrific shape, with a noticeable extra burst this offseason to go along with a bulldozing frame. Harris has the body type that New England usually covets in the early-down back role as a true power back between the tackles. The second-year back has also shown more promise as a pass-catcher this offseason.
With Harris fitting into their typical early-down style, Strong offering a change-of-pace, and Montgomery serving as a Swiss Army knife, the Patriots might roll with the current backs on the roster behind Stevenson rather than adding an external free agent.
The free agent running back market has slowed as big-name vets such as Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and now Dalvin Cook wait for the market to improve. But, outside of adding another depth body, the Pats must feel good about what they've seen from their current group.
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