By: Bob George/BosSports.net
February 19, 2008

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2007 New England Patriots. Today: running backs.

Talk about the proverbial "diamond in the rough".

Chris Canty. Chris Carter. Damon Denson. Tony Simmons. Sedrick Shaw. Ed Ellis. Chris Floyd. These guys are part of the NFL dregs known as "Bobby Grier draft picks". Some of them were blown picks which were received from the New York Jets, obtained in separate deals for Curtis Martin and Bill Parcells. By all rights, the three Grier drafts of 1997, 1998 and 1999 should have ruined the Patriots for years to come.

Among these failed draft picks emerged one man. Like the movie Aladdin, he became the diamond in the rough. He is the one man allowed to enter the cave and to touch the lamp. For all the failed logic and flawed vision that went into all the lousy picks, the fact that this smallish back from LSU would become the one quality Grier pick after all these years would perhaps have been greatly debunked by NFL experts back in 1999, when he was drafted.

Kevin Faulk became a Patriot when he was taken in the second round of the 1999 draft. He was the 46th player chosen, and the third player chosen that day by the Patriots. Damien Woody was the 17th player chosen, and he continues to anchor the Detroit offensive line (and feed his family well) to this day. Andy Katzenmoyer was taken at 28, and was forced to quit football after only two years because of serious neck injuries. Faulk was deemed at the time to be too small for the NFL, but Grier and then head coach Pete Carroll thought Faulk might make it as a third down back.

Now here we are, nine years later. Grier is gone, Carroll is gone, and all those other draft picks are gone also (to be fair, Woody, Rod Rutledge, Tebucky Jones, Robert Edwards and Brandon Mitchell did go on to make decent contributions for the Patriots during their time in Foxborough before moving on or retiring early due to injury, and all except Edwards has at least one ring with the Patriots). Only Faulk remains, and he is as productive as ever, and equally as beloved by fans and teammates alike.

Faulk perhaps first came into everyone's consciousness in 2001. When it was learned that the Patriots would play the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, it came out that Kevin Faulk and Marshall Faulk were distant cousins. This column predicted that the team that won the battle of the Faulks would win the Super Bowl. The Patriots did just that.

During his tenure with the Patriots, Faulk has become perhaps the best third down back in the NFL, as well as maybe its best receiving back. Faulk is a prototypical "jack of all trades" back, who is versatile and is able to be trusted with a wide variety of tasks. Faulk is also a tremendous blocking back, and has become one of the best blitz pickup backs in the league.

His raw numbers won't electrify you. He gained only 265 yards on 62 carries in 2007. He caught 47 passes for 383 yards and one touchdown. But if you break down the offensive game plans for the Patriots, you will find that Faulk made a lot of clutch plays, plays which kept drives going and kept the Patriots in a position to win the game. If Tom Brady needed a first down, he always knew that if Randy Moss or Wes Welker could not get it done for him, he knew he had Faulk in his back pocket.

If you're digging for more props for Faulk, here's one for you: For the first time in his career in 2007, Faulk had zero lost fumbles. That's huge for a guy with a history of fumbling.

Despite the advancement of Laurence Maroney, especially in the postseason, few Patriot observers would be in favor of getting rid of Faulk in hopes of getting Maroney all the carries he needs to finally reach the levels everyone has projected. Faulk in effect really doesn't take carries away from Maroney. But there is no question that right now, if you took a poll of Patriot Nation, Faulk would be named as their favorite running back.

Not that Maroney would be smeared or sliced and diced. The worst thing that happened to Maroney's 2007 campaign was the season-ending injury to Sammy Morris. Morris was the perfect compliment to Maroney, and it was working brilliantly until Morris went down for the season during the Dallas game. Maroney was left to shoulder most of the rushing burden for the Patriots.

Maroney finished 2007 with 835 yards rushing on 185 carries. But Maroney finished very well, gaining 100 yards or more in four of the final six games. It's sadly coincidental that the two of those six games where he did not gain over 100 yards were both against the New York Giants. But where the Giants were able to figure out how to stop Maroney, the other teams were shredded by Maroney, especially in fourth quarter where Corey Dillon had excelled so well at killing the clock.

Morris was a most pleasant surprise in 2007. He averaged 4.9 and 5.1 yards per carry in the first two games (Jets, San Diego), then later had two consecutive 100-yard games (Cincinnati, Cleveland). Morris was hailed as the saviour of the Patriot running game, and with the lighter rushing load, Maroney was going to develop into a monster late in the season. Maroney was still able to do that without Morris anyway, which is a huge tribute to Maroney and the potential he carries with him as a first round draft pick.

If Morris and Maroney can both stay healthy in 2008, and if Faulk continues to give the Patriots at least a career norm year, the Patriots might be able to win December and January games as convincingly as they did in the warmer weather months of the year, and might also be able to avert another Super Bowl disaster in the future. Morris especially remains a key to a Patriot rebound in 2008, if you want to call improving on an 18-1 record "rebounding".

Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel proved to be nice spare parts, especially Evans. Evans is a decent blocker and good at short-yard carries, though Maroney needs to be better at the latter. Eckel had a lot of garbage-time carries and really isn't tested when the game is in doubt. Evans likely will be back, but the Patriots will likely bring in several running backs to camp to give Eckel some competition.

Let all who criticize Grier and his grocery shopping continue to do so if they must. But you should thank Grier for drafting Kevin Faulk if you ever meet him. Unfortunately, Grier needed more Faulks on his resume than Cantys or Shaws.

If nothing else, Faulk is a nice reminder of how much worse the Patriots had been, and how far they have come in just ten years.

Next installment: receivers.


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