By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Leading up to the 2021 Patriots season, we'll be taking a look at a specific storyline that will have our attention throughout the season. Today we look at the team's talented stable of running backs behind quarterback Mac Jones.
Jones may be getting thrown right into the fire as a rookie, but he is coming into a great situation because of New England's incredible offensive line in front of him and a really good group of running backs playing behind him. He'll be well protected, and have plenty of options to hand the rock to on any given down.
Jones may be the face of the franchise, but the offense will rely mostly on the guys carrying the football.
Damien Harris is the top guy heading into his third NFL season after breaking out last season. His emergence as a top running back was one of the few highlights during an otherwise disappointing 2020 season. After what was basically a red shirt rookie year in 2019, Harris started 10 games for the Patriots last season. He started the year on IR with a broken finger, but took over the backfield in Week 4 in Kansas City when he ran for 100 yards on 17 carries. He had another 100-yard game a few weeks later in a loss to the Bills, and scored his first career touchdown as well. He had his best game in Week 9, rushing for a career-best 121 yards on 22 carries in a win over the Baltimore Ravens.
He missed the last three games of the season with an ankle injury, but finished as New England's leading rusher with 691 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Now he'll get a full season of being the team's top back.
And he's got a great supporting cast to lighten the load. There will be no red shirt season for fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson, who showed us that he's a bulldozer with racing tires during the preseason. It made New England comfortable enough to move on from Sony Michel a few weeks back, with Stevenson sliding into the No. 2 running back spot on the depth chart.
The rookie out of Oklahoma finished atop the preseason leaderboard with 217 rushing yards and five touchdowns over three games. We know how Bill Belichick feels about stats in general, so preseason stats aren't going to draw much of a grunt from the head coach. But 217 yards and five touchdowns over a three-game stretch is impressive any way you cut it.
Here is one more promising Stevenson stat before we move on: He averaged 7.2 yards per carry in the preseason. Even if you take out that 91-yard touchdown run at the end of the first preseason game against Washington, the rookie averaged 4.3 yards on his other 29 rushes. So you can understand the hype surrounding this kid.
James White is back as New England's sure-handed third-down back, the veteran voice of the group and a really good safety net for Jones in those "gotta have it" situations. It was a tough year for White in 2020 after his family suffered tragedy early in the year, but he's primed for a huge bounce back year with all the improvements elsewhere on the offense.
J.J. Taylor is also a fascinating storyline, with the 5-foot-6 back capable of producing some electric highlights. Like the rest of New England's backs, he broke out a handful of vicious jukes during the preseason, and he'll give the offense another explosive and elusive option out of the backfield.
Like last season -- and late in that 2018 Super Bowl run -- the Patriots will be a run-heavy team in 2021, especially as Jones finds his way. They're going to look to control the clock on the ground, and then lean heavily on a much-improved defense. It's been a winning blueprint in the NFL for years, and one we'll see a lot of again this season.
Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins on Sunday, Sept. 12 on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Wednesday night with Patriots 1st Down at 10:30 p.m. on TV38 and continues Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m. on WBZ! Our opening day coverage begins with Patriots GameDay at 11:30 a.m., the Patriots and the Dolphins kick off at 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!
for more features.