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Can Jonas Gray recapture the magic form he showed against the Colts?
There are positions of greater need on this Patriots roster, but there might not be a position with as much uncertainty as running back. With Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley both departing this offseason, there's plenty of snaps and production to replace, with only LeGarrette Blount seemingly ensured of a job come September.

I wrote previously on the competition to fill Vereen's old passing down back role, but there's plenty of competition to fill out the rotation as a second early down "big back". Blount appears to be the favorite to be the primary ball carrier in 2015, but the team certainly needs a capable backup should injury or ineffectiveness strike him. Blount will also be suspended for the season opener, heightening the need for another productive early down runner on the roster.

The Patriots have plenty of intriguing options behind Blount, but each comes with their own set of question marks. Can Jonas Gray even come close to replicating the form he showed against the Colts, or was that a one-time, flash in the pan performance aided by fantastic blocking? Can Brandon Bolden seize a bigger role after contributing mostly on special teams last year? Finally, just what can Tyler Gaffney do at the pro level? The answers to those questions will likely determine who makes the roster and who winds up unemployed at the end of August.

Jonas Gray

By now, every Pats fan is familiar with the story of Jonas Gray. A 2012 undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame, Gray spent his rookie season on the Dolphins PUP list, rehabbing a torn ACL suffered late in his senior season. A strong bid for a roster spot in 2013 came up just short, with Gray amongst the team's final cuts, leading to a year spent on the Ravens practice squad. The Patriots signed him to a futures contract in 2014 and once again, Gray found himself amongst the team's final cuts after a strong preseason. His preseason play earned him a job on the practice squad, where he stayed until Stevan Ridley's Week 6 ACL tear opened up a roster spot for him.

Gray's first significant action came in the team's Week 8 blowout of Chicago, as he chipped in with a solid 86 yards on 17 carries (5.1 ypc). The following week was a quiet one, as Gray managed just 33 yards on 12 carries against the Broncos stout front seven. However, his breakout party came in Week 11, when a run-heavy game plan led to a 37 carry, 201 yard and 4 touchdown effort against the Colts.

Unfortunately for Gray, his run as the Pats featured back seemed to end as quickly as it started. Not only was he infamously sent home from practice after oversleeping and showing up late the next week, but he also found new competition for his job from LeGarrette Blount, who was quickly signed by the Pats after his midseason release from Pittsburgh. Blount immediately took over the primary ball carrier role and held onto it the rest of the season, with Gray seeing double digit carries only once after his record setting Colts game (a 11 carry, 62 yard showing against the Dolphins).

There's plenty to like about Gray. At 5'10" and a listed 225, he's a bigger back who runs downhill with an attitude. Gray reads his blocks well and finishes his runs, almost always falling forward for extra yardage. He also displayed solid ball security in his opportunities, something that certainly appeals to Bill Belichick.

However, Gray has his limitations as well. He lacks breakaway speed and will never be much of a big play threat, as evidenced by a long run of only 20 yards on the season. While a load to tackle once he gets going downhill, Gray needs a step or two to really get going, and thus is more reliant on his blocking than some other backs. When given space by his line, Gray will consistently get the four and five yard chunks that keep an offense moving. When his line loses the line of scrimmage, he lacks the pure explosive talent to manufacture yards out of nothing.

Despite his brief stint as a New England folk hero, Gray probably needs a strong preseason to keep his job. He spent a few games on the kick coverage team, but his roster value comes largely from his ability as a downhill thumper. He's also not a particularly strong receiver, leaving him out of the mix for third down snaps. If he excels in the preseason, he'll likely keep a job as a strong complement to Blount, but it wouldn't be a tremendous surprise if a back with more versatility winds up poaching his roster spot.

Tyler Gaffney

Gaffney put up prolific rushing numbers in college
Gaffney is another interesting story and intriguing prospect on the Patriots roster. A two-sport standout at Stanford, Gaffney actually took the 2012 season off to play professional baseball in the Pirates organization (where he hit .297 in single A ball). He returned with a bang for his senior season in 2013, rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns. Those numbers got him drafted in the sixth round last year by the Carolina Panthers, where he was expected to compete for snaps. However, a torn lateral meniscus in the opening days of training camp ended his rookie season before it even started. Gaffney was waived with the intention of being placed on injured reserve but, much like the Jake Ballard situation from a few years ago, the Patriots landed him with a waiver claim. Gaffney spent all of last season on injured reserve, but he's expected to be healthy and ready to compete for role this summer.

At 6'0" and a listed 220 pounds, Gaffney is a solidly built back with a little more explosiveness than his competition for this role. Like Gray, he does an excellent job of keeping his legs churning and running with good forward lean. He doesn't have much lateral quickness, but does have a quality spin move which he uses well to get out of jams. While not used often as a receiver in Stanford's power offense, he flashed solid hands when thrown to and has the potential to factor into passing downs as well.

That versatility could be key for Gaffney as he attempts to carve out a role for himself on this team. With a little more speed than Gray (assuming his rehab and recovery has gone smoothly), better hands and nearly as much size, Gaffney certainly boasts a more well-rounded skillset than his primary competition for the job. The ability to contribute in multiple roles adds game-day value for him, and his athleticism and physicality give him potential on special teams as well.

Of course, all of this remains projections until we see what Gaffney can do against NFL competition. With his injury occuring so early in training camp last summer, we've still yet to see him in any live, full-padded action at the pro level. Until then, it will be impossible to tell how he stacks up at the next level. A full recovery from his meniscus tear is another key for him. Gaffney was never an elite athlete (hence his dropping to the sixth round last year) and can hardly afford to lose a step speed-wise.

Sleeper: Brandon Bolden

It feels like cheating putting Bolden here. It seems like every year finds the Ole Miss product on the roster bubble, only for his versatile skillset and strong special teams play to once again win him a job. Since making the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2012, Bolden has overcome injuries, suspension and competition on the depth chart to stick around against the odds.

It would hardly be surprising if he sticks around again this year, given the versatility he brings to the table as the fourth running back. At 5'11" and 215 pounds, Bolden brings underrated power as a ball carrier, where he averaged 4.9 ypc in his first two seasons. He also proved his toughness and versatility in 2013, battling through a painful knee injury to serve as the team's passing down back while Shane Vereen was out with a broken wrist.

Last year, his rushing numbers dropped to a career low 3.1 ypc on only 31 attempts, but he continued to contribute to the team as a special teams standout. One of the few "core" special teams players to appear on all four units, Bolden's season was highlighted by a crucial blocked punt in a tight win over San Diego, but the third year pro was a consistent presence in the game's third phase all season long.

Special teams may be the only aspect of the game where Bolden truly excels, but his ability to do a little bit of everything makes him a very valuable as a depth option. That versatility was rewarded in January with a two-year contract extension, which theoretically will keep him in New England for the next two seasons. At just $1.16 million a year, Bolden's deal isn't costly enough to save or cost him his job, but it's a good indication that the front office values his multifaceted contributions to the club. Barring a major breakthrough from his competition, I fully expect that versatility to keep him on the roster this year, which combined with the presence of Blount likely leaves only two roster spots for the rest of the backs.

The forecast:

As you can see, there's plenty of talent but also plenty of question marks in the New England backfield this summer. It's worth noting that Blount's one game suspension means he will not count against the roster for the season's first week, opening the door for an extra back to at least make the initial roster. However, Blount figures to be back Week 2, when he'll be the frontrunner to get the bulk of the carries. With this much competition and so many unknowns on the depth chart, this figures to be the most difficult competition to forecast of camp. It will be up to these backs to separate themselves come preseason, when the pads come on and live tackling begins to reveal the playmakers on the roster. Without knowing what Gaffney can bring to the table, I'm considering Gray the early favorite to win the role.


Our training camp battles series will be double dipping today! Check back later in the afternoon for a look at the names vying for depth receiver roles.

Ned Brady 7/29/2015 11:12:00 AM Edit
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