Should The Patriots Upgrade At Running Back?
By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The New England Patriots can win games by dropping Tom Brady back to pass 50+ times. They proved it in the team's Week 7 win over the New York Jets. But that approach has literally never created a champion; among the 49 teams with quarterbacks who made more than 600 pass attempts over the course of the season, none was victorious in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots offense has often relied too heavily on Brady to move the ball. They have been at their best when they can complement his passing with a strong ground game. There are several reasons that a talent upgrade at that position would help Brady, especially after watching the Denver Broncos smother the Patriots' passing game with little to no respect for their ability to run. It would make sense for the team to have a legitimate talent taking the ball on first and second down.
LeGarrette Blount has filled the role admirably in his three seasons with the Patriots and at times dominated, but has gotten shut down when facing stronger defenses in the playoffs. He was a non-factor in Super Bowl XLIX and the Patriots' AFC Championship Game loss to the Broncos in the 2013 season, and only showed real effectiveness against smaller defensive fronts like the Indianapolis Colts.
Stevan Ridley showed serious promise when he ran the ball for the Patriots in 2012, rushing for 1,263 yards on 4.4 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns. But his fumbling issues helped cost the Patriots the 2012 AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, and you know how Bill Belichick feels about serial fumblers.
Why They Should Upgrade At RB
The Patriots do not need to reinvent their offense or build the team around an Adrian Peterson, but they could better serve themselves to have more of a threat to run the ball than the players they have deployed in the past. A better runner would make the Patriots' play-action passes more effective and make it easier for the team to close out games when they have the lead - and continue to do it in the playoffs against elite competition.
The Broncos defense barely had to pay attention to the Patriots running backs in the AFC Championship Game, instead rushing only three or four and flooding the middle of the field with everyone else. A more talented runner could have forced Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to dedicate more of his scheme to the run, instead of selling out to stop Brady.
Ideally, the Patriots find a back in the draft or free agency that is quicker and faster than Blount but can still be effective running downhill between the tackles when the Patriots need it. The early-down back role in New England isn't complicated: hit the hole and run whenever it's available, and protect the ball. Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis left much to be desired in the former while Ridley couldn't do the latter.
Nonetheless, the success of guys like Blount and Green-Ellis shows just how great the Patriots' system can be for that type of runner. Now imagine someone with closer to game-changing talent carrying the rock in their place - oh, and not fumbling, either.
Who could the Patriots sign as a free agent?
This year brings a strong free agent class, led by the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte. He would be a great weapon for Tom Brady and the Patriots in general, but will command a top-of-the-market contract, so he won't be happening. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin was one of the league's best runners in 2015, but will be too expensive and bring fumbling concerns, so forget about him. But there are other talented runners expected to become unrestricted free agents in the offseason who won't come as pricey as Forte but would still upgrade the position.
The most intriguing (and more feasible) options come out of the AFC East: the Jets' Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are set to become UFAs while the Dolphins' Lamar Miller has hinted at testing the market. Ivory or Powell would have the potential to put up career-best numbers in the Patriots system. Powell, in particular, is a smart, talented runner but has yet to get a chance as a full-time back and could be affordable. Miller looks like a Belichick kind of back, offering all-around skills and above-average ability as a pass blocker, but as one of the top backs available along with Ivory, he could be too expensive.
The most likely move the Patriots make, based on their history, is to shop in the bargain bin and find a great value, which they once had with Blount. That could come in the form of the Redskins' Alfred Morris, who is coming off a down year and appears supplanted by rookie back Matt Jones. Morris is a powerful runner with a strong lower body and has surprising shiftiness for a between-the-tackles runner, and has shown what he can do in a system tailored to his abilities. He would be a great fit as the early-down back for the Patriots while commanding a cheap salary and offering more upside than most other low-priced UFAs.
The Patriots could clear over $15 million in cap space by cutting Jerod Mayo, Marcus Cannon, Scott Chandler, and Brandon LaFell, and letting Blount and others walk. That would leave them more than enough room to make a legitimate upgrade at the running back position while also leaving them room to add depth to the offensive line and wide receiver corps. They also need to save space for their impending free agents after 2016, which means they are not likely to spend too much money on a free agent running back in the offseason.
Dion Lewis and James White have the third-down back roles sewn up for Tom Brady - Lewis particularly proved to be a dynamic weapon in the passing game and was decent on the ground as well - but the Patriots lack a legitimate threat to straight-up run the opposing defense over, pick up crucial short yardage, or plow into the end zone on a consistent basis. They have gotten by without it in the regular season, but it has doomed them in the playoffs. Perhaps it's time to add a bigger talent to the backfield.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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