The Patriots feel so confident in their running back room that they said goodbye to Damien Harris and handed the keys to Rhamondre Stevenson after he became the first 1,000 yard rusher in New England since 2016.
New England’s rushing attack dropped from 2021 to 2022 by 17.8 yards per game, going from 124.4 to 106.6, in addition to a decrease in rushing yards per game at home by 23.3 in this same one-year span. Furthermore, in just one year, the Patriots went from being a top-eight rushing team to the near bottom of the NFL.
Much of the Patriots offensive struggles last season derived from the odd play calling and designs from Matt Patricia, who is no longer with the team anymore. Now with Bill O’Brien calling the plays, the Patriots should get back to being a strong rushing team.
It’s worth mentioning when O’Brien was the head coach of the Houston Texans from 2014-2020, the Texans were arguably a top-10 rushing team during his entire tenure there. O’Brien runs a balanced offense and we should see him unlock some different potential to New England’s running game this season.
Let’s evaluate the running backs:
Rhamondre Stevenson showcased himself as a three-down workhorse last season who’s poised to take over New England’s backfield. He’s everything Bill Belichick wants from a running back; a strong runner who’s also great in pass protection and can catch passes out of the backfield. In fact, he led the team in receptions in 2022 with 69, two more than the top receiver in Jacobi Meyers who had 67 and isn’t on the team anymore.
Stevenson is in line for another big year with a much less dysfunctional offensive scheme with O’Brien in charge of the offense. The expectation for Stevenson should be at least 1,500 all purpose yards with the way he produced last year. I believe the offense goes through Stevenson and is being built around the powerful running back New England landed on in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
James Robinson showcased his potential in 2020 as an undrafted rookie in Jacksonville where he became the fourth undrafted rookie running back to rush for 1,000 yards in NFL history. He’s only entering his third season in the league and will be 25-years-old when the season starts with a lot of gas left in the tank.
Robinson is great at running through the tackles and catching passes out of the back field, tallying 91 receptions on 120 targets throughout his three-year career. He also made the NFL Top 100 list in 2021 when he had 450 yards before contact and 317 yards after contact. What’s intriguing about Robinson is his rushing attempts per broken tackle, averaging 16.6 for his career, which is about double what Stevenson’s produced in two years.
The Patriots are hoping to create a strong running back duo with Stevenson and Robinson. The two power-runners have a similar build to each other and could prove to compliment each other well in New England’s backfield.
Robinson will wear No. 3 this year.
After being drafted in the sixth round in 2022, Kevin Harris saw action in five games as a rookie, tallying 52-yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. At 5-foot-11, 225 lbs, Harris is the second biggest running back on the Patriots roster and still has much to prove.
Harris was drafted, waived, signed to the practice squad, and promoted to the active roster during his rookie season. Entering his second season, however, he’s in line to be the third-string running back behind Stevenson and Robinson. He isn’t the fastest running back in the world - running the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at his pro day- but he will attack the line and break tackles along the way.
The signing of Robinson makes it more challenging for Harris to get snaps, but he does offer size to the position and has plenty of experience running in an NFL style offense at South Carolina, he rushed for 1,977 yards— averaging 5.5 yards per attempt— and scored 23 touchdowns in three years.
Harris is great at running off tackles in stretch plays and is really powerful with the ball in his hands. He searches for holes and doesn’t do too much running off script.
The expectation for Harris should be New England’s third string running back and perhaps carve a role on special teams as well. He should see more than 18 touches entering his second season with the team. I expect Harris to be a strong RB3 and possibly the goal line back if Stevenson seems to struggle.
The Patriots drafted Strong in the fourth round in 2022, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the combine. He is a great mix of both power and speed. We saw him get 10 carries for 100 rushing yards and seven receptions for 42 receiving yards as a rookie.
Similar to Harris, Strong will drop in the depth chart with the signing of Robinson, but he will have a great opportunity to make an impact on special teams and work for that third string position.
In 2022, Strong was on the field for 143 plays on special teams, which is only 34 percent. Don’t be surprised if he reaches close to 50 percent of special teams snaps in 2023.
The story of JJ Taylor will continue in New England for the third season. He signed a reserve/future contract in January, which is the Patriots showing how they feel about him by not allowing him on another team. The reserve/future contract brings him to the team through training camp.
Taylor is valued in New England. His speed and elusiveness with the ball is unmatched and an element that every team needs. There’s a uniqueness to Taylor that fits well on the Patriots and an element that Belichick knows can be a game changer.
In all, the Patriots have a great running back room with much variety, something that Belichick often obtains. This offense is built around Stevenson but Robinson is going to be an important piece to the backfield. His success will also impact the snaps that Harris and Strong will see. I do expect to see Strong used as a change of pace back and the same can be said about Harris in certain situations.