The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be plenty of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53 man roster and who is on the bubble.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring is a learning exercise and that the competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 88 players on board, 35 of these current members of the roster now, at a minimum will be cut.
So we’ll start with the running backs, some members of the national media believe that the Patriots have one of the weaker running back rosters in the league. We tend to disagree with that assessment as Belichick likes a running back by committee, which tends to keep those fantasy numbers down but keeps their legs fresh.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden
Belichick wasted no time in bringing back Blount as soon as the Steelers cut him in November after Blount, unhappy with his playing time and walked off the field before a game was complete. Blount was the closest thing the team had to a lead back down the stretch and into the playoffs.
He carried the ball 60 times in the last five games for 281 yards, a 4.68 average and three touchdowns. In the playoffs, Blount carried the ball 47 times for 189 yards, 4.02 average and 3 touchdowns.
He’s big, 6’0, 250 and is very tough to bring down once he gets to the second level. With the new physical, run-oriented guards, Blount must be a happy camper as he’s at his best running inside the tackles. But he’ll miss the opener versus Pittsburgh due to a one-game suspension.
Bolden is another favorite of Belichick and he’s a core special teams player and for that reason, he’s a lock. Well, the fact that he signed a nice extension doesn’t hurt either. He forced a fumble on a kickoff that Kyle Arrington returned for a touchdown against Cincinnati. And he blocked a punt against San Diego giving the Pats the ball in the red zone.
As a running back, Bolden has the size, 5’11, 225 to be a lead back and is good at carrying the ball even in limited opportunities. He’s proven to be a decent pass catcher as well. In 2013, he caught 21 passes out of the backfield for 152 yards. He’s solid as a pass blocker as well. While not a stand-out in any particular area, Bolden does everything well and isn’t going anywhere in 2015.
Only two locks for the roster? Well not quite, they’ll carry more than those two….read on.
Near Locks: Jonas Gray, James Develin
Gray burst on the scene after being signed off the practice squad with a17 carry, 86 yard effort against the Bears. The he had a monster game against the Colts on Sunday Night Football. He carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards and four touchdowns, gaining 100 yards in each half.
Then just as quickly, Gray fell off the face of the earth after oversleeping. He found himself in Belichick’s doghouse and barely saw the field down the stretch. Coupled with Blount’s arrival, Gray became a forgotten man.
He has good size at 5’10, 225 with a low center of gravity; Gray has outstanding vision (probably better than Blount’s) and is very tough to bring down inside. Gray would have to have a pretty poor summer not to make the team.
The same can be said for Develin; the 6’3, 255 fullback can do a bit of everything. It would be a shocker if he weren’t on the team. He’s an outstanding lead blocker in short yardage, as a runner he can pick up the tough yard or two but he’s a battering ram and won’t make anyone miss.
Develin has shown nice hands for a big guy and catch the ball out of the backfield. He can also line up as an H-back and can even line up as a tight end. The Brown alum is a valuable, versatile player who flies under the radar a little bit but barring a melt-down in training camp, should be there once the smoke clears.
Next …the guys on the bubble
On the Bubble: Tyler Gaffney, James White, Travaris Cadet, Dion Lewis
The Patriots stole Gaffney off of the waiver wire from the Panthers last summer after he suffered a knee injury in training camp. Gaffney is another guy that the coaches are very high on, he has the size (6’0, 220), to be a feature back and in his last season at Stanford had more than 1700 yards rushing with nine games of over 100 including five in a row. Gaffney does have the ability to be a good pass receiver as well.
In an attempt to replace the production of Shane Vereen who left via free agency for the Giants, the Patriots have a trio of candidates. Travaris Cadet has the most experience, catching 38 passes out of the backfield for the Saints. He’s taller at 6’1, 210 than the others and offers some intriguing possibilities. He wasn’t asked to pass block with New Orleans however and it is something that not only Vereen excelled in, but he’ll be expected to pick up very quickly.
James White had a red-shirt type rookie season in 2014 and will be trying to make a big second-year jump in 2015. The 5’10, 205 back from Wisconsin had an excellent spring last year but as training camp wore on he seemed to slide in effectiveness. He has arguably the most upside of the three backs and got off to another quick start during OTAs and mini-camp, displaying some nice hands and showing off good speed on wheel routes out of the backfield.
Dion Lewis was out of football in 2014 and is trying to re-ignite his career with the Patriots. He last played in 2012 with the Eagles. Lewis is the smallest at 5’8, 195 but was fairly productive in the backfield for Philly. He broke his leg playing for the Browns in 2013 and spent a week with the Colts last season before being released. He was signed to a futures contract with the Patriots on December 31.
The big question is how many backs they’ll keep on the roster, Last year down the stretch it was four running backs and a fullback (Develin). If that is the case then the most likely scenario would have the team keeping Blount, Bolden, and Develin with Gray and the four bubble candidates competing for just two slots.
That promises to be an area to watch as camp begins and players jockey for snaps. Looking ahead (a bit too early), with the Pittsburgh game looming without Blount being available, who would get the majority of snaps? Smart money now would be on Bolden, he’s an established veteran who has had experience both rushing and receiving and is big enough to handle running the ball between the tackles and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Stay tuned, we’ll be down at training camp filing daily updates about the goings-on with the Pats as they begin the march to the 53 man roster.