New England Patriots: Evaluation of offensive line and running attack
The New England Patriots should consider strengthening their running attack in the first season they’ll play without Tom Brady this century.
Considering the New England Patriots no longer have the luxury of employing Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, and are still essentially in quarterback limbo between Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and possibly a rookie draftee, it has me wondering if the team is going to take on a different approach to their offensive system this season.
That approach should consist of becoming a more productive, balanced, and powerful running football team.
To begin, a successful running game starts with a strong and capable offensive line — to which fact New England has equipped and prepared well for over the last few years. In 2018, the Pats drafted tackle Isaiah Wynn in the first round, as well as Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt in the third and fourth rounds in 2019.
The Patriots also gave Marcus Cannon a five-year, $32.5 million contract extension in 2016, they gave a five-year, $50 million contract extension to Shaq Mason in 2018, and the team just used their franchise tag on Joe Thuney.
It’s fair to say that the Patriots have been interested in strengthening their offensive line over the last few years and now just need some additional depth to go along with it.
The next part to a successful running game is a solid and versatile tight end … which the Patriots currently do not have. The slew of tight ends that ran around New England last season were essentially bigger wide receivers in the fact that they struggled picking up their blocks in the run game.
Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse are currently the only tight ends on the roster — which is not too promising, seeing as they both struggled last season before getting injured.
The Patriots need to seriously consider selecting a tight end within the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, as well as going after a veteran who is on an expiring contract or already a free agent.
In a running play, the tight end seals the edge so that the running back can make his move through the open lane. We saw how much not having that added protection from the position influenced the run game last year.
Similar to the tight end, the next part of a successful running game is on the shoulders of the fullback. Up until last season, James Develin has handled fullback duties for the last eight years for the Patriots.
Due to a neck injury, Develin only played in two games last year, and his absence ultimately hurt New England’s ground game. It’s worth mentioning that Develin’s injury has forced the Patriots into bringing in another veteran fullback this offseason, Danny Vitale, who last played for the Green Bay Packers.
In 2018, with a solid offensive line and a reliable tight end and fullback duo, the Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per rush and scored 18 touchdowns, which was good for 20th in the NFL.
Last year in 2019, without the best possible offensive line, no tight end protection, and no fullback for a majority of the year, the Pats averaged 3.8 yards per attempts and scored 17 touchdowns, which was good for 25th in the NFL right near the bottom of the league.
It’s not the biggest difference by any means, but the negative in-game impacts from not having the protection needed was huge last year.
Now to the running backs…
Due to the aforementioned struggling offensive line and protection last season, Sony Michel’s production took a negative decline as a result of it all. The third-year running back out of Georgia went from 4.5 yards per attempt during his rookie season two years ago to 3.7 yards per attempt during his sophomore season in 2019.
This could be a make or break year for Michel, seeing as one of the biggest concerns about his game is that he struggles to create separation for himself and make his own plays.
James White is the most well-rounded player out of the running back group. White is a Super Bowl hero, a team captain who understands his job/role within the playbook, and a player that has literally done everything that has been asked of him from the Patriots.
He has primarily been used as a pass-catching running back, but White has the skills to run between the tackles and gain some of the tough yards on the ground. White is going to be extremely valuable to the Patriots’ offensive scheme this year. His 24 receiving touchdowns is a Patriots franchise record for a running back.
Rex Burkhead is similar to White in many ways. They are both effective through the air and can make plays happen on the ground, thus classifying them as wild cards. Burkhead doesn’t go down easy, fights for every yard he earns, and never shies away from contact.
He has had his fair share of injuries, but Burkhead has carved out a role for himself in the Patriots offense. Last season, Burkhead carried the ball 65 times for 302 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which was tied for the second highest of his career.
Lastly, there’s Damien Harris. Harris was drafted in the third round out of Alabama last year by the Patriots and unfortunately was rarely used. He minimally saw the field in two different games against the New York Jets last year.
No one is too sure as to why the Patriots drafted an elusive and powerful runner in Harris if they had no intentions on utilizing him in his rookie year. It would make sense for the Patriots to use Harris more this upcoming season, as I believe he is a perfect mix of both Sony Michel and James White: a powerful runner who can catch the ball in the air.
All in all, the New England Patriots have more pieces in line to establish themselves as a running team right now than they do as a passing team. It’s definitely worth considering making the necessary adjustments to have a more productive running attack this season.