FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With Tom Brady crossing into the land of 40-something two years ago, the offense has gone a little more run heavy to try and help preserve the legend, and also adopt the best avenue toward winning.
Along with the cornerbacks and linebackers, the Patriots’ running back group is pretty stacked. Whether running, or catching passes out of the backfield, the backs have become a pivotal and necessary part of the Patriots offense.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels claims they won’t know how the offense is going to shake out until they put all the pieces together and see what works, but given the success during the playoffs pounding the football behind a terrific offensive line, that will likely be part of the formula again this season.
“If you can establish a run and impose your will on a defense it’s a great feeling,” said fullback James Develin, who got to know the feeling well during the playoffs. “It’s a good strategy, but we let the coaches handle that. They call the plays, and we just try and go out there and execute them.”
Last year, the Pats drafted University of Georgia star Sony Michel in the first round. He played a key role during the postseason, with 336 rushing yards and six scores in three games.
Michel will once again be counted on to carry the rock, but he’s had knee woes dating back to college. He needed a clean-out procedure after the season, so they’ve moved cautiously with him.
The good news is Michel has looked good running the football and making cuts after coming off the physically unable to perform list this past week. He’s also been working more on catching balls out of the backfield, so his role could expand.
Unlike last year, when the Pats faced a shortage with their lead backs, with both Michel and Rex Burkhead sidelined early, they have more depth in the room.
Damien Harris, a 2019 third round pick, has shown well in camp and looks like he’ll contribute. He played for Nick Saban at Alabama. He’s known for busting plays right up the gut, between the tackles. With his ability to catch the football, he’ll be pushing Michel for starter reps.
With Harris providing added depth, there shouldn’t be a need to employ a wide receiver in the backfield on the early downs, as they were forced to do with Cordarelle Patterson last year.
Veterans James White and Burkhead are the primary pass-catching backs. White is the quintessential third down back, and one of Brady’s most trusted targets, while Burkhead is a bit more of a two-way threat with his ability to run the ball.
Core special teamer Brandon Bolden, meanwhile, returns to the group. He can carry the rock in a pinch, while Brady also enjoys a connection with him as a pass-catcher.
It’s possible someone from this unit becomes expendable, but with the Patriots heavier reliance on the run game, and Michel’s cranky knees, it wouldn’t be a surprise if all five are kept, along with Develin, the jack-hammer who typically creates a path with a lead block.
The variety of skill sets is also a benefit.
“That’s the beauty of our room. We can provide a plethora of different things. We all run different, we play different, we all bring something different to the table,” said Bolden. “But when it comes down to it, we’re still running backs at the end of the day.”
On Friday, Brady spent considerable time with the backs, throwing passes to them on every possible route. Most have the ability to line up anywhere, which makes them dangerous.
“We have a good group of guys. Everybody can run, catch, block. We’re competing with one another, making each other better,” said White. “We know we’re not all going to be out there for each and every play, so we’ll find our roles, and make the most of our opportunities.”
Rookie Harris is the new kid in the room, while veteran Bolden returns after a year spent in Miami. Even though the group has had some difficulty down by the goal line in camp, they plan on getting better.
“In my seven years here, we’ve had some great backs playing here, and some great rooms. This is just the beginning,” said Bolden. “This room is going to have to make a mark on it’s own to we what we’re going to do in the end. But right now, we’re starting off close. We’re a tight-knit group, everyone has come in, and is following suit, including me.”
Bolden has gotten a fair share of carries, and caught a number of passes from Brady already. During the season, he’s more like an emergency back who can fill in on a moment’s notice. His primary role is special teams, but Bolden always has to be prepared. So he’ll spend considerable time with the offense during training camp, and with the backs in their meetings.
The veteran really likes the vibe in the running back room.
“It’s like iron sharpens iron,” he said. “We all push each other, we all want each other to succeed. We all want each other to be better.”
Under that umbrella, the backs still have a little fun. They have private competitions to help keep things interesting.
“Yeah, we still go out there and we’ll still have our little — ‘I did this faster than you, I did this better than you’ — we still compete against each other. But smartly. We don’t push each other too far.”
Said Develin: “There’s just a natural competitive spirit between all of us. Whether it’s practice, games, we always compete with each other, and try and make each other better . . . We vibe very well, and work very well together.”