Unit is Much Deeper Heading into 2017
The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should no shortage of competition at several spots, especially at the back end of the roster. 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. We start the week off at the running back position.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With the new rules in play, the Patriots will start camp with 90 players and don’t have to cut down until the final 53.
So, with that in mind, we’ll start with the running backs, we know Belichick likes a running back by committee, which tends to keep those fantasy numbers down but keeps their legs fresh. The team lost last year’s leading rusher LeGarrette Blount to free agency but it seemed like they had no interest in bringing him back and just moved on.
So… who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee
James White had a very good season backed with a tremendous effort in the Super Bowl. That parlayed into a three-year, $12 million-dollar contract extension with $4 million guaranteed and a maximum value of $15 million. He’s an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield and has earned his payday. He was sixth in the NFL with Yards after Catch (YAC) with 540.
Burkhead is a versatile guy brought over from the Bengals. He can run between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and play special teams extremely well. He was the Bengals’ leading ST tackler last year. He’s a consummate professional and will fit in seamlessly here. He’s going to compete for reps, he’ll just have to show he’s consistent enough to warrant them all the time. He was given decent money on a one-year deal.
Gillislee is the type of one-cut runner that hits the hole quickly that should bode very well in the Patriots offense. He will take over Blount’s duties and carries especially in the red zone. He’s more the size of Stevan Ridley than Blount but his quickness off the line makes him an intriguing player to watch this season. I think he’s another player that should fit very well here.
Near Roster Locks: Dion Lewis, James Develin
Belichick likes to characterize Lewis as an inside runner more than a pass catcher. But the diminutive, water bug is a very difficult man to catch in the open field. His ability to make people miss is amazing at times. He wasn’t fully healthy after suffering an ACL tear late in 2015. The only thing that could hold him back is if he isn’t fully healthy now and his knee gives him problems again during training camp.
As a lead blocker, Develin can really open some nice holes for the backs to get to the second level. They missed him in 2015 when he went on IR with a leg injury but his presence made a big difference last year. He’s a versatile guy that can line up as a fullback, H-back or a tight end. It would be hard to see him not making this roster.
On the Bubble: D.J. Foster, Brandon Bolden
Foster is the wild card here again in 2017. The undrafted free agent running back from Arizona State possesses the type of speed and quickness that Lewis has. He’s much taller however at just around 6’0 and has special teams’ versatility. He can catch the ball and I believe he can play in this league. But if he were to stay, who goes? This will be one of those tough decisions unless someone gets a case of the Foxboro Flu. It will be difficult I believe in seeing him pass thru waivers. I think unless an injury occurs, we may be seeing him playing in a different uniform this year.
Bolden has always been a guy who was a core special teams guy and a very effective one. But this season will be a very difficult one for Bolden to be there for the final 53-man cut-down. Burkhead is another good special teams’ player and offers much more on offense than Bolden does. This could be one of those difficult decisions that Bill Belichick has to make.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Glenn Gronkowski, LeShun Daniels
The Patriots signed…. and cut Gronkowski three times from the practice squad. But the good news is that they liked him well enough to keep bringing him back. But the problem is this: As long as Devlin is on the roster and healthy, it is going to be very difficult for “Baby Gronk” to carve out a role….another Practice Squad opportunity perhaps awaits.
Daniels has good size at 6’0 and 225-pounds and rushed for 1000 yards in Iowa last season, the first back at the school to do so since 2011. He has a decent jump cut and is very good between the tackles and in short yardage. But with Gillislee and Burkhead vying for 1st team reps, he has a long uphill climb for a roster spot. But he’s a prime candidate for a Practice Squad slot if he shows he’s got down-the-road potential.