What Will Be New England’s Next Move?
By Rod Villagomez
The 2020 season closed as one of the worst for the New England Patriots in over two decades. Currently, there are 22 unrestricted free agents free to walk away from the team should they choose. Among them are running backs James White and Rex Burkhead. If one or both of them depart for less turbulent waters, it will leave Sony Michel and Damien Harris alone in the backfield. New England will need to bring someone into the fold if they are intent on keeping the most prominent running back committee in the league going. But who will that be and what will that person do to the Patriots running identity?
Here are three 2021 free agents that could potentially fill the void if New England finds itself light on running backs in a few months. Whether it’s taking Whites’ place as the pass catching back, or the potential to establish a lead back for a change. Each of these backs offers something different to the squad as well as proven upside and enough value that it’s worth the speculation. At this point, a rebuild of the former dynasty is underway and a new running philosophy could help it immensely.
At one point, it seemed as if Le’Veon Bell was destined to be the league’s next generational running back. Unfortunately for the league, the fans, and more importantly the Pittsburgh Steelers, such was not the case. After five hot seasons in Pittsburgh, Bell and the Steelers brass could not come together on a suitable price for his services. He wound up sitting out the entire 2018 season as a result. A brief stint with the Jets followed, but that crashed and burned leaving him searching once again for a home. Ultimately, he signed a 1-year deal with the Chiefs giving him an opportunity to play in tandem with their rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But that deal is over and there doesn’t seem to be a need to bring him back to Arrowhead next season.
Here is where New England might be able to find a true number one running back. Bell has proven he can handle an intense workload. In 2017, he carried the ball a league leading 321 times. On top of that, he tallied 85 receptions. The Patriots have lacked a strong lead back for some time now. Sony Michel figured to be that guy, but injuries and the frustrating game of backfield roulette New England is fond of has taken the shine off his apple. Maybe bringing Bell onboard could change that philosophy.
He won’t escape sharing the backfield with a younger back though. Damien Harris will remain as it’s likely James White and Rex Burkhead test the markets for a new home. It certainly will not hurt the Patriots to sign Bell to shore the gaps. He is a veteran back who will not be nearly as expensive as he would have been a couple of years ago. What’s more, New England and Bill Belichick have proven they will not shy away from ex-Steeler challenges. By signing Antonio Brown in the past, they’ve set a precedence for taking a chance on players.
What the Patriots will get in Bell is an All-Pro example on the field for an already talented Harris. Before leaving Pittsburgh, his dual threat backfield approach made him one of the most feared in the game at his position. Despite being closer to 30 than most teams are comfortable with, he’s still got plenty left to offer. All told, he’s played only seven seasons so far, which is not bad even factoring in his seemingly over usage in Pittsburgh. It’s clear the Jets weren’t the right team for his return. It was also clear that Kansas City had very little use for him. All things considered, a move to New England could be just what both parties need to get back to the top.
There is no denying that New England loves to cycle their running backs. And, if anyone is used to sharing a backfield, it’s Kenyan Drake. His time in Miami had him splitting carries with the likes of Jay Ajayi, Kalen Ballage, and even Frank Gore. While getting more favorable usage in Arizona, he still found himself watching as Chase Edmonds factored into the mix. This makes a Drake addition to the Patriots running back roster all the more attractive. At 27, he’s still in prime form to be a veteran presence to Damien Harris, plus he’s still young enough to carry that backfield for a few years to come.
The future of the quarterback position he’ll walk into is up in the air. Odds are Cam Newton will not return for another year in New England. So, depending on who replaces him, the need for a back like Drake to provide a solid running foundation for the offense becomes important. What makes it a better situation is the Patriots ability to absorb his potential free agent price tag. Given his current market value, he’ll likely cost his next team just north of $8 million next season. Even if Belichick decides to open the coffers for a quarterback, their available cap room should still leave plenty of room to welcome Drake to the team.
It may seem as if Sony Michel is being vastly overlooked in this equation, and by all rights and accounts, he and Drake are comparably the same back. Both have logged seasons with over 900 yards rushing. Both are 27 years old. Both have spent time in a running back committee. But for whatever reason, his injury last season seemed to put him out of sight and therefore out of mind. He only had one game over 10 carries over the last six weeks of the season. Harris assumed lead back duties even as he struggled to turn them into sizable outings. Drake signing could also give New England the leverage to get some value in a Michel trade. Should that happen, it will free Drake to play the lead role in the backfield. Whether the Patriots give it to him is another story.
If all the Patriots want in their next running back is someone who can give Harris and Michel a short break, McKinnon is their guy. He’s not short on talent, but unfortunately, injuries and opportunity have chipped away at his potential. After having to sit out two full seasons, he came back to action last season still trying to get up to speed. His situation was not helped coming back to a loaded San Francisco backfield. He fought to see the field behind fellow running backs like Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. His upside was also capped by inconsistency on the 49ers offense for a better part of the season. There was never really an opportunity for him to gain any traction.
There probably won’t be too many teams willing to take a chance on him, especially if they are running back needy. That’s why New England could end up being a perfect landing spot for him. He’ll likely play out the same type of role he did in San Francisco. Although, if the Patriots deal away Michel, he stands a great chance to see more work in tandem with Harris. He can also serve as the pass catching back a la James White who will likely test the free agent market. This is a role he has some familiarity with as he performed it with regularity during his time in Minnesota.
Again, he won’t come to New England to be the top back. His role will play out much like it has for most of his career, which is to say, he’ll be one of many. It seems to be a solid fit for both the Patriots and McKinnon alike. Especially since there will likely be no interest from either side for a return to the Red and Gold.