Utah's Devontae Booker has earned comparisons to Arian Foster. George Frey/ Getty Images
With the NFL draft merely 11 days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. Today, I'm starting the series with what I personally believe to be the Pats most immediate need: running back.
Position: Running back
Level of need: Short term: High Long term: High
Positional overview: The re-signing of LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal gives the team some insurance in case things don't fall their way on draft day, but running back remains arguably the team's biggest need. Bill Belichick repeatedly mentioned the need to develop more offensive balance following their disappointing season-ending loss to Denver, something which certainly suggests he'd like to find an early-down upgrade over the maddeningly inconsistent Blount. As things currently stand, Blount is the only qualified candidate on the roster to carry the early-down load. He's backed on the depth chart by uninspiring veteran Donald Brown, special teams standout Brandon Bolden and unproven youngster Tyler Gaffney, who has an intriguing size/speed skillset and impressive college production but has been unable to stay healthy in his pro career.
The team typically splits it's runners into two categories: bigger "early-down" backs like Blount, and shiftier "third-down" backs who bring value in the passing game. The team is better stocked in the latter category, but question marks remain there as well. Dion Lewis shined as an electric playmaker during the first half of last season, but he's now coming off of a torn ACL and has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. He's backed up by James White, who emerged as a useful role player during his second season but has physical limitations that prevent him from making much of an impact as a ball carrier.
Out of reach
Without a first round pick, the Pats find themselves unable to acquire the elite prospects at any position. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliot is the consensus top back in this class and unlikely to make it out of the top 15 picks. Alabama's Derrick Henry is less likely to go in the first round, but it would be shocking to see him last all the way to the Patriots picks at the end of the second round. If he did slide, he would fit the big, pile-driving back profile that the team has targeted at times in their early down runners.
Day two targets:
Kenneth Dixon: Louisiana Tech
For my money, Dixon represents the best fit for the Patriots offense. While not the biggest back (he played at 5'10", 215 at La-Tech), Dixon has a compact build for his frame that enables him to finish his runs with surprising authority. Where he really shines, however, is in space. Dixon has the quicks to make defenders miss in the open field, and he has a natural knack for making cuts to maximize his yardage. Furthermore, he's the best receiving back in this draft class, possessing a receiver-level knack for tracking the ball in the air downfield, sure hands, and highly advanced pass-protection skills for a college prospect. While that receiving ability has led some to mislabel him as purely a third-down back, Dixon was an every down workhorse in college, and he answered some of the questions about his size by weighing in at a chiseled 222 pounds at his pro day. His versatile all-around game and short compact build brings to mind (keep in mind, this is strictly an ON the field comparison) a young Ray Rice, and Dixon could have a similar impact in a Patriots offense tailor-made to fit his strengths.
Devontae Booker: Utah
Like Dixon, Booker was a versatile, every-down workhorse in college who projects as an excellent fit in the Patriots offense. Unlike Dixon, he comes with some injury risk, as he's spent most of the pre-draft process sidelines with a torn miniscus suffered late in his highly productive senior season. When healthy, Booker's patience as a runner and three-down versatility has earned comparisons to former Texans star Arian Foster. While not overwhelmingly big (5'11", 219) or fast, Booker runs hard with good pad level to maximize his ability in short yardage situations. His instincts and elusiveness make him dangerous once he gets into the open field. The Pats recently hosted him on one of their 30 private pre-draft workouts, likely to get a better look at his surgically repaired meniscus. Other than his health, the biggest concern with Booker is his ball security, as he had six fumbles last year.
Paul Perkins: UCLA
Jukes on jukes on jukes. That's what immediately stands out with Perkins, who forced more missed tackles than Derrick Henry last year in well over 100 fewer touches. Perkins will immediately add a dose of explosiveness to any team he gets drafted by, but he's a far less complete back than some of the other prospects in this class. At 5'10" and just 208 pounds, Perkins has a spindly frame that limits his ability to run through contact and push the pile. His lack of size and power also shows up in pass protection, where he's willing to stick his nose in there but simply lacks the bulk to hold up against blitzing linebackers. Still, his nasty ability in open space would lead to plenty of big plays if drafted into a Patriots offense that tends create favorable looks for it's running backs.
Alex Collins: Arkansas
Collins has received less buzz than some of his peers on this list due to a lack of eye-popping measurables, but few can match his three year resume of production against SEC competition (three straight 1,000 yards seasons, despite splitting carries two of those seasons). While he doesn't have eye-popping speed or explosiveness, Collins has a compact pro-ready frame (5'10", 217) and runs with excellent balance, patience and vision that allows him to maximize every carry. His ability to be a workhorse between the tackles would make him a nice fit as an early down upgrade over Blount. However, there are some holes in Collins' game. He lacks experience in the passing game, both as a receiver and blocker, due to the Razorbacks' run-heavy scheme. He also comes with questions about his ball security, as he committed 17 fumbles in his three years on campus. Despite those flaws, the Patriots met with Collins at the combine, showing at least some preliminary interest.
Jordan Howard: Indiana
Another prospect who projects into more of an early-down workhorse role, Howard is coming off of an extremely productive season at Indiana, including a monster performance against Michigan (35 carries, 238 yards) that answered questions about his quality of competition. At 6'0" and 230 pounds, he's a powerful bruiser who looks to punish would-be tacklers. He lacks explosive quickness, but has excellent vision and decent speed once he gets going for a big back. His ability to run through contact and push the pile in short-yardage would add some needed toughness to this Patriots offense. Durability appears to be the biggest question mark about Howard, as missing four games and parts of several others with various injuries did little to alleviate scouts concerns about how the sustainability of his physical running style.
Jonathan Williams: Arkansas
The other half of Arkansas' two-headed backfield, Williams was thought of as the superior prospect and a likely second round pick before losing his senior season to a foot injury that required surgery. Due to that injury (foot injuries have a reputation for re-occuring), he could slide all the way to the Patriots late third round picks, where he'd represent a tremendous value if he's healthy. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, Williams has the power to run through contact and punish tacklers as a big, early-down back, but he also possesses excellent quickness that allows him to make defenders miss in the open field as well. He also has displayed good hands and a willingness to block, albeit in small sample sizes due to Arkansas' scheme. While the injury is certainly a concern, Williams has the physical talent to contribute right away at the NFL level, and he comes with far less wear-and-tear (406 career carries) than many of his peers in this draft class. The one noteworthy on-the-field knock on him is ball security, as he lost 5 fumbles in 2014, his last season. Still, the Pats have done their homework on him, as they used one of their 30 private pre-draft visits on him (likely to check in on his foot) after previously meeting with him at the combine.
CJ Prosise: Notre Dame
One of the more interesting running back prospects in this year's class, Prosise only has one year of experience under his belt as a running back. Originally recruited as a safety, Prosise spent his first two years of eligibility as a receiver in South Bend before converting to running back due to a need at the position. He proved to be a quick study at his new position, rushing for 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 156 carries while chipping in an additional 26 catches and 308 yards through the air. His lack of experience at the position will make him a project at the NFL level, particularly in pass protection, but Prosise has good size (6'0", 220) and the burst to gain chunks of yardage in a hurry once presented a gap. In the short term, he'd also add value on special teams, as his 11 tackles led to his winning Notre Dame's special teams player of the year award in 2014.
Day three targets:
DeAndre Washington: Texas Tech
Somewhat of a poor man's Kenneth Dixon, Washington is pint-sized (5'8", 208) but compactly built and tough. He has a willingness to run between the tackles that belies his lack of size, but is best utilized in space, where his quickness can make him a tough open field tackle. Washington was very productive at Texas Tech, particularly as a senior (1,492 yards, 14 touchdowns), but his lack of size leads to questions about his ability to handle such a workload at the pro level. However, his receiving ability is a definite plus which could make him a nice value pickup in the middle/late rounds.
Daniel Lasco: California
An explosive athlete, Lasco boosted his draft stock with an impressive combine showing. He broke through with an impressive 2014 season, but spent the majority of 2015 laboring through a hip injury that noticeably limited his effectiveness. That 2014 season flashed his big play potential, but missing time in 2015 only heightened scout's concerns that he would struggle to stay healthy at the pro level due to his slight frame (6'0", 209). Still, his open field explosiveness and receiving ability could make him an effective scatback at the next level, and he brings additional value as a productive special teamer (he lead Cal as a freshman with 12 special teams tackles). He appears to have caught the Patriots eye, as they met with him at the combine and have since put him through a private workout.
Tra Carson: Texas A&M
Decidedly in the "big back" equation at running back, the 5'11", 227 pound Carson is a physical bruiser between the tackles. A transfer from Oregon, Carson burst on the scene with an impressive senior season for the Aggies, rushing for 1,165 yards and 7 touchdowns while adding 29 catches for 183 yards and another score through the air. While scouts had relayed his coaches rave reviews of his character, many had questions about his athleticism, questions he was unable to answer at the combine due to toe surgery. However, he improved his stock at A&M's pro day by posting much better than expected testing numbers, especially for a back his size.
Brandon Wilds: South Carolina
Another big back, the scouting report on the 6'1", 220 pound Wilds recalls former Patriot Jonas Gray. Like Gray, Wilds is a big, physical runner who runs hard, always falls forward and will reliably get what is blocked for him. Also like Gray, Wilds simply lacks the dynamic athleticism necessary to create yardage when his blocking fails him. You can do worse than that with a late round pick, and the Pats took the time to meet with Wilds at the Gamecocks' pro day.
Tyler Ervin: San Diego State
Another undersized scatback with explosive athleticism, Ervin also boosted his stock with an impressive combine showing. At 5'10" and just 192 pounds, he'll be limited to a change of pace role at the next level, but he has speed and big play ability in spades along with an impressive resume catching the football out of the backfield. He also gains points for his experience as a kick returner, which likely factored into the Pats using one of their official 30 private visits on him.
Kelvin Taylor: Florida
The son of former Patriot Fred Taylor, Kelvin's underwhelming production as a senior can partially be attributed to poor blocking up front. He possesses advanced instincts as a runner and good foot quickness to make defenders miss, but lacks size (5'10", 207) and long speed. The Patriots, undoubtedly familiar with him from their time with his father, met with the younger Taylor at the combine.