Is running back the best position group on the Patriots’ roster?

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Over the next few weeks, WEEI.com and the “6 Rings” podcast will take a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster heading toward the opening of training camp at Gillette Stadium on July 27. While there will still be some potential roster moves made by New England leading up to and through the regular season, for better or worse the talent on the current roster is the talent that will play out on the game field this fall. Today we turn to a running back room that has a pretty impressive mix of talent.

Running back

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Current roster (Year, 2021 GS/GP): Damien Harris (4th, 1/15), Rhamondre Stevenson (2nd, 2/12), James White (9th, 0/3), Pierre Strong (rookie), Kevin Harris (rookie), J.J. Taylor (3rd, 0/5)

Key losses: Brandon Bolden (FA, Raiders), FB Jakob Johnson (FA, Raiders)

Key additions: Strong (4th round), Harris (6th round)

Overview: Through plenty of personnel turnover over the years, the Patriots have employed mostly a committee approach at the running position since Corey Dillon set a franchise record with 1,635 yards in his first season in New England in 2004. Since then there have been ebbs and flows in production and how that production was broken down, but one constant was longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears.

While Fears heads into retirement in 2022, the type of deep, talented and egoless group that he oversaw for the last couple decades remains in the running back room.

Damien Harris returns to lead the way, heading into the fourth and final year of his rookie contract coming off a season in which he led the Patriots with a career-high 929 yards on 202 attempts (4.6 avg.) with an impressive 15 touchdowns. Harris has been a reliable, consistent runner over the last two seasons and there is no reason to believe he’s anything but very much capable of the same and even a bit more this coming fall.

The biggest upside potential in the New England backfield, though, is second-year former fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson.
As a rookie the Oklahoma production displayed quick feet and explosive running ability for a man of his size (6-0, 227) on the way to 606 yards and five rushing touchdowns. He also showed soft hands and potential in the passing game, leaving room for him to certainly have a bigger role in his sophomore season.

Veteran pass catcher James White is the biggest question mark in the New England backfield after missing all but three games last fall to a hip injury. He was on the practice field for limited work this spring, but there is work to be done before he’s ready for full-contact action and a spot on PUP to open the summer has to be a consideration if not a likelihood.

With Damien Harris in the final year of his contract and White coming off a major injury on the wrong side of 30, New England invested in the running back spot twice in the draft. The fourth round brought speedy South Dakota State star Pierre Strong Jr., while the Patriots doubled up on backfield draft talent with South Carolina big-bodied back Kevin Harris in the sixth round. Strong put up huge numbers at the FCS level last fall and ran the fastest 40 time (4.37) of any running back at the Combine. Harris had a huge 2020 season before a back injury limited his production last fall. The duo certainly has some thunder and lightning type potential, though both probably need some development to be game ready, especially in the passing game.

J.J. Taylor’s time as a diminutive developmental back could be coming to an end, while versatile veteran wide receiver Ty Montgomery could be an option in the passing back role if White isn’t ready for regular season action.

Reason for hope: Some, including a couple of the co-hosts of WEEI’s “6 Rings” podcast, believe the running back room is the strongest positional group on the Patriots roster with depth, talent and productive upside. Stevenson showed flashes of greatness as a rookie and should be more comfortable for and prepared in his role in his second season. Harris has done essentially nothing but produce when give chances over his first three seasons, so at the very least he’ll continue to be a productive veteran option in 2022 working behind what a new-look offensive line that still has the chance to open plenty of holes on the ground. There is certainly plenty of youthful upside and potential in the Patriots running back committee this fall.

Reason for pessimism: The uncertain health status for White and loss of leadership with Bolden following Josh McDaniels to Las Vegas leaves New England with a pretty young running back room, especially with Vinnie Sunseri taking over as position coach as Fears runs off into retirement.
Sunseri has some big shoes to fill, while both Damien Harris and Stevenson need to prove they’re ready for bigger roles on the Mac Jones-led offense that’s still very much a work in progress. Damien Harris is a good back, but has yet to have an elite NFL season. Stevenson has impressive three-down potential, but has to prove he’s ready for an increased role. First and foremost, both have to hold onto the football and make sure questions about fumbles are a thing of the past. New England cannot afford to give away the ball or games this season. Kevin Harris is apparently healthy and might be a positive revelation, but rookie running backs can be a crap shoot even in a power, lead back role that he seems prepped for. Strong is making a big jump in competition level and theoretically sliding him into a third-down role feels like an overly optimistic projection. There is talent in the room, no doubt. But that must be turned into proven leadership and production.

Position grade -- B: New England certainly has two quality backs with lead-dog potential in Damien Harris and Stevenson. If healthy, White is one of the best pass catching options in the game, though his reception total has dropped in three straight years. The rookie draft picks certainly are intriguing and running backs with impact talent come in the mid and later rounds of the draft on an annual basis across the league. New England’s running back room is good. The talent is solid. But can it be the foundation of the offense and a reason that the team wins this fall? Time will tell.

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6 Rings and Football Things
Is the Patriots RB room the best position group on the team?
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