Training camp is going to be an incredibly interesting time for New England Patriots fans, because there are several position battles that are worth watching closely. The Pats will have to cut someone loose at safety, make some tough cuts at defensive end, do a lot of sorting out at wide receiver, figure out how they want to shuffle the offensive line, and decide how many running backs they want to keep on the roster. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are absolute locks to make the 53-man, and I couldn’t envision the Pats cutting ties with offseason signing Leon Washington, who is the bona fide return specialist this team has sought. However, the Patriots will need to decide between Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, or they could decide to keep both and make a tough cut elsewhere.
Blount is a former 1,000-yard rusher, and he notched that number as a rookie in 2010 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since then, his play has slipped, and Blount was in Greg Schiano’s doghouse in Tampa Bay. The Bucs didn’t even want him as the No. 2 back behind rookie sensation Doug Martin, and he was shipped up to Boston for one of New England’s seventh-round picks and Jeff Demps. Both teams flipped running backs they had soured on, as Demps wanted to continue pursuing track and seemed to be prioritizing track. The fact that the Patriots signed Washington meant that Demps’s time in New England was done anyway, and the trade ended things. The Buccaneers showed interest in Demps back in August, and they were regarded as the favorites to sign him before the Patriots swooped in and offered the speedy return man a nice contract for an undrafted free agent. With the Patriots seventh-rounder (the Pats had enough seventh-rounders, so that likely didn’t mean anything to them), the Bucs traded up so that Schiano could take a Rutgers running back in the sixth in Mike James.
Both teams did well for themselves in that deal, and the Patriots just might have a nice compliment to Stevan Ridley if Blount can make the roster. Nothing was ever guaranteed for Blount, but Bucs fans speak highly of him. They talk about how Blount isn’t as bad of a pass-catcher as people think (I’ll reserve judgement on that), and they also say that Schiano was unfair to him (I wholeheartedly agree).
Ever since 2010, though, Blount hasn’t been the same. In 2011, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry in an average year, and he was putrid last year in just 41 carries. The ridiculous thing, though, is that the Bucs only used him for 41 carries, and that’s not really the right way to treat a guy who ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie. Some of it is Blount’s own doing, though, because he needs to keep his head straight and needs to be more consistent.
People take a look at Blount’s 6’0″, 247 pound frame and think of him as a bruising back, but nothing could be further from the truth. Blount isn’t the four yards and a cloud of dust back, and he is actually a home-run back. That’s why WPA, EPA, and Success Rate all rate him so low; Blount is a player who will get stuffed a few times before making a “wow” run. In fact, Blount is one of the five most elusive backs in the NFL, as he had the second-highest elusive rating in 2011 (an advanced stat from the Pro Football Focus that mostly uses missed tackles to assesses how elusive a player is per each rushing and receiving play) and the highest in 2010. Back in 2010, Blount was so elusive that nobody came within 30 points of his league-high elusive rating, and that was earned on the strength of a whopping 50 missed tackles on 201 carries (five yards per carry).
If you think that LeGarrette Blount is a bruising, goal-line back, then you need to get that misconception out of your head quickly. Blount is an elusive, agile, and explosive home-run back who can be frustratingly inconsistent, but he is a great highlight-reel back and somebody who could be a nice foil to Stevan Ridley. Last season, the Riddler ran the ball nearly 300 times, and it would be nice to take some of that wear-and-tear off. Whether that will be Bolden or Blount helping out remains to be seen, but it is possible that both backs make the roster if they both prove themselves worthy. Blount has the better pedigree as a three-year player, but Bolden also has the benefit of being on the team. Even so, Ivan Fears has praised Blount, and Blount did take a paycut, so maybe he does have his head on straight in New England. We’ll see. I have high hopes for Blount if he can make the roster, because making the roster is the first step in getting back to his former, elusive self. Ideally, Blount will be the No. 2 back for the Patriots and be the perfect compliment to Ridley.
As far as receiving goes, Blount is about as much of a non-factor as Ridley is as a pass-catcher. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. That’s why the Patriots have Shane Vereen. Blount’s pass blocking struggles are definitely overstated, as he is about average in that regard. Or, at least, he’s not bad enough to where you would notice him getting exposed frequently as a pass protector; mediocre is a fair label.