VIDEO NOW – NEN Xtra – Keys to a comeback year for the backfield militia

New England Nation

As attractive as it will be to watch the battle for the starting quarterback position in New England, there may be an even more intriguing unit on that squad. Look no further than five to seven yards behind the man under center—or sometimes right beside him. Welcome the running backs unit of the New England Patriots.

It’s almost troubling to say that last year was a down year on the ground for this team, but over the course of two decades, it was. If you’re into stats, the Patriots’ DVOA, or Defense Adjusted Value Over Average, was a tremendous drop off in 2019 compared to their Super Bowl winning season in 2018.

Say it matters, say it doesn’t—this is a very talented group of guys who are going to be used in a variety of ways in a variety of situations and they’re looking to make a comeback in 2020 as a dominant force. Some teams struggle to put out two or three competent backs on the field. This year, when the Patriots need it the most, they have not two or three, but five. And throw in a couple of fullbacks competing on the depth chart.

In a year where the rushing attack will need to step up given the change in quarterback, there are plenty of options for offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels to turn to.

We all know the quarterback battle between Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham going on. So let’s look at what the six-time Super Bowl champions have in their backfield:

Sony Michel

Michel’s production in his first two seasons have exceeded expectations. He comes from a fully-loaded militia of outstanding running backs in Georgia. Success was expected, but not star-potential like a Todd Gurley—turns out he may become a better player than Todd Gurley will ever be in the NFL if he keeps it up. He’s just shy of 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons. Throw in 13 scores on the ground to the stats. Michel is your number one guy without a doubt.

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James White

White is the jack of all trades. He can run the ball when needed, he can block, and he is notorious for being a giant threat receiving out of the backfield. Through six years in New England, he has more than doubled his receiving yards over rushing yards, and he has tripled the amount of touchdowns through the air versus on the ground. His production went down a little bit in 2019 after a career 2018 season, but that dip in production was still his second-best season.

FOXBORO, MA – DECEMBER 20: Coty Sensabaugh #24 of the Tennessee Titans attempts to tackle James White #28 of the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Damien Harris

Harris is coming off a rookie season where he only saw two games and touched the ball four times. Seems weird to throw him in as a lock toward the top of the depth chart, right? It’s a good point—an overrated running back who only seems good because he came from Alabama. Fair, yet false. This guy is good and he’s going to get touches in big games for the Pats this year. You don’t run for over 3,000 yards and score 23 touchdowns in the toughest conference in the country for no reason. If he puts in the work this summer (already evidence of him doing that) and becomes accustomed to what his role can be in this offense, Harris will get early down touches in some games this season. He could even be a weapon in the red zone.

ATLANTA, GA – SEPTEMBER 02: Damien Harris #34 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes for a touchdown in the third quarter of their game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Rex Burkhead

Now don’t count Burkhead out. He’d be an easy one to target and say he won’t produce. Fact of the matter is, he had his highest production as a Patriot last season. It was the most touches and most yards he had in a season since his last year in Cincinnati. He has a good shoulder on his head and he’s familiar with the system. He can be used as a multidimensional weapon—not quite like James White, but a formidable counter measure. It’s just tough to project a better year out of him over a younger Damien Harris. He seems to have hit his ceiling, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be productive at some point this season.

DENVER, CO – NOVEMBER 12: Running back Rex Burkhead #34 of the New England Patriots runs for a touchdown after a catch in the first quarter of a game as free safety Darian Stewart #26 of the Denver Broncos pursues at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 12, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

 Brandon Bolden

We saw him take on some roles in the backfield last year. Quite honestly looked like he’d been running his whole career a few times—but don’t look for him to keep that up in 2020. He had his share of yardage as a back early in his career, but the rest of the time his efforts have been put forth on the special teams unit. He is the lead man to be the kick returner, which may suit him better with an already deep unit of backs. Look for him to make a couple of difference making plays on special teams in some big games.

UPDATE: Bolden, several teammates opt out of 2020 season

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 10: Brandon Bolden #38 of the New England Patriots runs the ball against the New York Giants during the first quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 10, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

J.J. Taylor

The un-drafted rookie. It’s a long climb to the top—especially when you stand at 5’6”. The small rookie would seem unlikely to make such an impact in the NFL. Yet, the Patriots took a chance on him. He has lighting speed and still brings scrappy toughness to the field. If he gets in open space, he’s gone forever. Here’s the thing—every team only gets to sign so many un-drafted rookies/free agents. Bill Belichick and this organization are very smart in drafting and signing. They would not have signed him unless they found something in him that could be beneficial. Look for Taylor to compete for some time on the field. You never know when they could use him.

TUCSON, ARIZONA – SEPTEMBER 07: Runningback J.J. Taylor #21 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football against linebacker Taylor Powell #4 of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks during the first half of the NCAAF game at Arizona Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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