One under-the-radar position the Patriots must improve at this off-season

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While down at last year's Combine, a colleague scoffed at my suggestion that the Patriots would draft a running back in the 2022 NFL Draft. Not only did New England have many more pressing needs elsewhere, but they still had Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor and James White (at that point) on the roster and would go on to sign multi-purpose player Ty Montgomery in free agency.

Turns out, I should’ve predicted the Patriots would draft two.

New England spent a fourth-round pick on the speedy Pierre Strong Jr. and a sixth-round selection on the bruising Kevin Harris to bolster their depth. By the end of the year, they were probably glad they did as Damien Harris missed multiple games with a thigh injury and Stevenson battled through pain and burnout late in the year.

Neither had a huge impact on the 2022 season, but they each had strong moments against the Arizona Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders, with both Strong and the younger Harris notching touchdowns in the former contest.

Now, with Damien Harris set to hit free agency, the depth at running back is about to look very thin behind Stevenson, who is clearly the top dog but needs a strong second option behind him. Both Strong and Kevin Harris are unproven in bigger roles, and the latter is a sixth-round pick who isn’t guaranteed to stick on the roster.

That’s why, though the Patriots have to upgrade at more premium positions like tackle and wide receiver as well, running back has quietly become a position Bill Belichick must address offensively this off-season.

Bringing the veteran Harris back on a cost-effective deal is, of course, an option New England will probably explore. But one would figure Harris wants a chance to carry the load after proving a dynamic runner in 2020 and 2021, putting up 929 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in 2021 specifically. Stevenson’s emergence means he probably won’t be featured here any longer. Additionally, Harris still isn’t a great pass-catcher out of the backfield, which makes him a luxury item when it comes to contract extensions.

This year’s top-ranked free-agency running backs – i.e. Saquon Barkley and Tony Pollard – will be cost-prohibitive for the Patriots, assuming they even hit the open market. But one could see an older back like Rex Burkhead coming back to town to work with an improved offense and spell Stevenson once in a while as the younger prospects develop.

Additionally, there are plenty of incoming rookie backs the team could see as competition or upgrades over what they currently have on tap. (After all, Strong’s fit with the Patriots might be murkier now that they’ve seemingly pivoted away from the outside zone-heavy scheme they appeared to be moving toward.) New England typically invests more in the running back position than most teams as well, according to Pro Football Focus.

One option competing down at the Senior Bowl this week includes Oklahoma’s Eric Gray, who became a Sooner after Stevenson went to the NFL. Gray had 2,236 total yards and 15 touchdowns, possesses similar elusiveness to his Oklahoma predecessor and can even run true receiver routes out of the backfield.

On the Shrine Bowl side, the Patriots have both UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim on their West Team rosters. Allen is a receiver/running-back hybrid with true track speed, setting the California high-school record in the 100-meter dash at 10.4 seconds, while Ibrahim is a sturdy, NFL-ready runner who put up 1,665 rushing yards last year and can immediately contribute.

Expect New England to address other areas of importance and need much earlier in the draft or even in free agency than they do running back. But don’t be surprised when there’s new blood in that building at that spot when camp opens in 2023.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports