Only two running backs in the NFL rushed more than 240 times last year and averaged fewer than four yards per carry.
One was a Patriot.
While most expected Sony Michel to soar in his second season, the Pats’ lead back instead plodded through a pool of disappointment. Michel averaged a single broken tackle per game and remained a net negative as a pass catcher. Coming off a full offseason program and healthy training camp, he gained fewer yards after contact per rush than he did as a rookie.
Somehow, Michel took the ninth-most carries in the league and became a complete non-factor.
Entering the post-Tom Brady era, reshuffling the run game may be in the Pats’ best interest. Brady’s projected successor, Jarrett Stidham, is a young unknown who will require extra support from his offensive teammates. On the other hand, of the Patriots’ five running backs — all of whom returned from 2019 — four are known commodities.
But before anyone hits the field, the Pats must create cap room, of which they have barely $1 million. Considering his 2019 season and history of knee issues, jettisoning Michel would seem to offer a reasonable solution for generating space. However, because of the structure of his contract, trading or releasing Michel wouldn’t actually result in any cap savings. Only dead money.
So are there other ways for the Patriots to rejuvenate their rushing attack and create greater financial flexibility?
For starters, James White isn’t going anywhere either — and shouldn’t. Among running backs who rushed at least 60 times last season, White produced the 14th-best player grade from Pro Football Focus, ahead of players like Joe Mixon, Le’Veon Bell and even Saquon Barkley. As one of the NFL’s top third-down receiving backs, White provides immense value.
The oft-injured Rex Burkhead can too — when healthy. He played 13 games last year, and his 33-yard rush at Cincinnati registered as the Pats’ longest of the season. Of all the running backs, Burkhead’s game is the most balanced between rusher and receiver, though he’s not suited for a featured role. Neither is Brandon Bolden, who became their most effective running back on a per-snap basis, but played only 8% of offensive snaps and can best be described as a core special teamer.
Last, there’s 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris. Perhaps Harris makes the giant Year 2 leap Michel failed to complete, but White and his third-down predecessor, Shane Vereen, once did.
Allowing Harris to at least take a few gather steps in 2020, particularly at the minimal cost of a mid-round rookie contract, would be smart roster management on the Patriots’ part.
So, Michel can’t go anywhere, White won’t be dealt and Harris is a question mark that deserves time to resolve himself. That leaves Burkhead and Bolden.
Cutting ties with them would provide just shy of $3 million and $1.5 million in cap savings, respectively. The actual cap room created would actually be several hundred thousand dollars less because of the Top 51 rule, which would replace any relinquished cap hit with that of another rostered player who’s likely on a minimum contract.
(The Top 51 rule dictates that during the offseason, only players with the 51 largest cap hits on a team’s books are counted toward the salary cap.)
Because of this rule, trading or releasing Bolden is likely off the table. He’s effective in small doses offensively, a pillar of the Pats’ special teams and beloved in the locker room. He provides a solid return on his contract, which expires after 2020.
Burkhead, meanwhile, deserves a longer look. The Patriots are projected to need roughly $9 million in cap space to sign their draft class, per Spotrac, and they’re presently about $8 million short. Let’s say trading or releasing Burkhead would create just over $2 million in room.
On the trade market, he’d likely fetch no more than a swap of late-round picks, given he’s a running back with a serious injury history who’s about to turn 30. Plus, the whole league knows the Pats are starving for cap space, and younger, cost-controlled running backs will be available in droves when the draft opens on April 23.
So why add an aging veteran signed to a 1-year deal that carries almost a $3 million cap hit in 2020, when any running back drafted after the 13th overall pick is projected to cost less?
It’s a good question, and a bad problem for the cash-strapped Pats. If anything, a pick-swap deal would likely require the Patriots to relinquish the better of the two picks, unless their trade partner is so flush with cap space its front office doesn’t even care. Don’t count on it.
Therefore, the only remaining option to create backfield change is releasing Burkhead, the only Patriots running back whose on-field presence doesn’t immediately tip off defenses to an incoming run or pass.
Here’s how the Pats can decide whether to keep or cut him.
Is Harris and/or an incoming rookie, combined with $1.25 million in cap space, likely to match or exceed the value Burkhead will provide in 2020? If so, cut bait.
Releasing Burkhead creates about $2 million in cap room. Drafting a running back in the third or fourth round — the Pats own picks No. 87, 98, 100 and 125 — should cost between $700,000 and $ 750,000 next season, per Spotrac. Mid-round rookie running backs emerge every year as surprise starters, while first-rounders almost never return properly on that investment.
This year’s draft class offers sufficient talent in that range. A few names to know: LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Anthony McFarland Jr. from Maryland, Utah’s Zack Moss, Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin and Antonio Gibson out of Memphis.
Research shows successful running games are foremost a function of strong offensive-line play, not running back performance. Having returned Joe Thuney, the Patriots have ensured themselves a rock solid offensive line in 2020.
As for the running backs, that will come down to how they view Burkhead’s value versus the rookies who could replace him.