By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 07, 2006

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Next installment in a series of positional analysis for the 2005 New England Patriots. Today: running backs.

It wasn't quite a return to the Queen City, but it may have felt like it.

Corey Dillon reverted back to his grumpy self. He stopped talking to the media for a while. Worst of all, he didn't win the whole thing in 2005.

But he was hurt most of the season, not rushing for 1,400 yards for a team going nowhere. His team did make the playoffs instead of bucking for the top draft pick. And his team did play a home playoff game, which it won. So you see, it wasn't like Mike Brown was his owner again and he was about to lose his starting job to Rudi Johnson.

But 2005 will go down as a major disappointment for Dillon. He got a brand new contract going into the season, but did not play like it in 2005. Of course, not many people play well when they were hurt like Dillon was. It was simply a season to forget for Dillon, who set a Patriot record for rushing yards in 2004 and got a ring for his trouble.

Dillon may be the subject of media pestering the rest of his career, and wrongfully so. At the slightest hint of adversity, the knee-jerk reaction will always be "Oh, no, here comes the old Corey Dillon back!" It is no wonder why Dillon stayed away from the media for the most part in 2005. He forged that reputation in Cincinnati, but in his first season in New England, he pretty much dispelled all such talk of him being a chronic malcontent.

Face it, Dillon had a lot to be grumpy about in 2005, and not just stupid questions from the media.

Dillon's 733 rushing yards in 2005 was the second lowest of his career. The only season where he had less was in his final season in Cincinnati, when Johnson took his starting job away. He averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry. Only twice in 2005 did he exceed 100 yards rushing, against Atlanta and at Buffalo.

What stands out in checking his season record is his "did not play"s. He was scratched from game action a total of four times in 2005. One of those games was the regular season loss at Denver, which gave the Patriots hope that they would win the playoff rematch in January. Of the four Dillon scratches, the only game the Patriots won was a home date with New Orleans.

Oh, and Dillon wasn't the only Patriot running back hurt. Not by a mile. It just seemed that way.

Kevin Faulk missed eight straight games during the 2005 season. Faulk's versatility, as well as his penchant for being an outstanding third down back was sorely missed in the Patriot running attack. Dillon was asked to do literally everything in the games he played in but Faulk sat. Faulk's 145 rushing yards in 2005 were a career low.

Patrick Pass was also hurting. He missed four regular season games and the playoff loss at Denver. His 245 rushing yards was second to Dillon on the team. But when you have a fullback second in rushing on a Patriot team still only one year removed from Charlie Weis, you know the running game was lame.

Heath Evans had one good game, his Patriot debut at Miami, a fair one against New Orleans, and zippo after that. Mike Cloud was a total non factor, and Amos Zereoue's contributions to the Patriots can be found amongst the letters in his surname: zero. The Patriots found themselves scraping for whatever they could get for production in the offensive backfield, but largely it wasn't there. The Patriots finished 24th in the league in rushing in 2005.

Bill Belichick might want to address running back in the draft. Dillon will be 32 in the fall and Faulk turns 30 in June. Cedric Cobbs wasn't the answer as to who will be the next Corey Dillon. Dillon is at an age where age is an issue, and Faulk is no longer the spring chicken he once was. Dillon can always bounce back and have a decent season in 2006, if not in the same league as his watershed 2004 season. But it may be time for Belichick to consider a replacement for Dillon in the draft.

Of course, some people might say "Sign Jamal Lewis!" and be done with the problem. But that won't happen. Lewis, whom Baltimore is refusing to franchise tag and will allow to become a free agent, is still young (27 in August) and awfully talented. But the Patriots won't pay Lewis the money he will want and keep Dillon around at the same time. And there is also the question of how Lewis will rebound from his missed time due to his recent incarceration. Lewis perhaps wouldn't fit the high character mold the Patriots wish to cultivate.

Going young is the likely answer here. It may also not be a bad idea to include fullback in these draft plans. Pass will be going into his seventh NFL season in 2006, all with the Patriots, but is still relatively cheap ($620,000 cap hit for 2006, his final contract year). The Patriots could also go young in fullback and save some cap money (about a half-million), though Pass is versatile much like Faulk is and is valuable to keep around. On a team where the fullback is de-emphasized, Belichick would need to figure out if Pass is worth keeping around because of his value on special teams.

With more critical needs that have to be met in the draft (cornerback, inside linebacker, tackle), running back may have to come down to "best value", which is how Belichick and Scott Pioli like to draft anyway. Belichick may just grab the best running back when the time is right and if it has value, as opposed to "Okay, we'll try and get Joe Smith from Anywhere State U in the third round. We may also have to trade up to get him!" Running back may have to be a little higher on the priority list than Belichick would like it to be.

Then again, Dillon just needs to stay healthy, his blockers need to stay healthy, and then all this "go young" talk will have been for nothing.

Next installment: receivers.


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