Could Blount's roster spot be in jeopardy? Jim Davis/Boston Globe
With Patriots training camp thankfully almost upon us, I'll be taking a closer look at some of the more intriguing positional battles on the roster. I'm kicking off the series today with arguably the weakest positional group on the roster: running back.
Lewis enters the season as a bit of a question mark due to his surgically repaired ACL, but there's no questioning his job security following his dynamic 2015 play. While all signs have been positive in his rehab so far (including his practicing at minicamps without a brace), it would not be surprising if Lewis entered camp on the PUP list. In fact, given how much his game relies on quickness and cutting, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats hold him out of the entire preseason out of caution. It seems like the team is optimistic about his availability for Week One, where he'd be a very useful checkdown option for young Jimmy Garoppolo. If healthy, he projects to a key role as an explosive offensive playmaker, particularly in the passing game. However, it remains unclear when he'll be able to regain that form, as he is merely eight months removed from surgery. Lewis also had a lengthy history of injuries before that torn ACL, making his availability a constant question mark. It remains to be seen whether his workload will be managed more this season in an attempt to keep him healthy and fresh for the playoffs.
Much was made over ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss speculating that Blount could be cut in his Sunday notes column, partly due to the slow news cycle and partly due to the clout Reiss carries in this region. While I don't necessarily disagree with Reiss' logic, I'd still be very surprised if Blount doesn't make the final roster. While his game certainly has its limitations, Blount clearly remains the team's best option on early downs as a between-the-tackles runner. At his best, he brings a power element that is otherwise lacking in the Patriots offense. Blount should also benefit from several of the teams offseason moves, namely the return of Dante Scarnecchia and the acquisitions of Jonathan Cooper, Joe Thuney and Martellus Bennett. With defenses forced to respect the passing game prowess of the Pats tight end duo, two TE sets could lead to some very favorable looks to run against. With all this in mind, the only way I envision Blount failing to make the roster is if his health fails him. It was reported earlier in the offseason that Blount had returned to "full health" from the hip injury that ended his season in December, but the bruising running back missed all of the offseason program due to concerns with the hip. If the hip problems linger, the Pats could be forced to look into adding another early down runner to the mix.
White improved dramatically in his second season
I've seen projections leaving White off the 53 man roster, but I find that hard to believe given the improvement he made from year one to year two. Despite his status as a 2014 fourth round pick, White was a non-factor as a rookie and appeared to be headed that way again after losing a training camp battle to Lewis last summer for the third down role. However, Lewis' injury re-opened the door for White to see meaningful snaps and he emerged as one of the teams better playmakers down the stretch. At 5'10" and just 205 pounds, White lacks the bulk to push the pile between the tackles, but he's elusive in the open field and displayed reliable hands and route running over the second half of the season. He projects as valuable insurance behind Lewis as a passing down back, which is especially important given the notoriously fragile Lewis' injury history.
On the fringe:
I considered putting Bolden in the likely safe category, but his limited offensive role will likely force him to once again earn his spot in camp. I still wouldn't bet against him, as Bolden is a valuable special teams player who also brings versatility as a backup runner. While not the most dynamic pass catcher or powerful early down runner, Bolden has flashed the ability to play either role during his four year Patriots career. That versatility combined with his game-day value as an active special teams contributor will likely keep his job safe, but he could become vulnerable if some of the other backs in this category emerge during camp.
Brown will have to hold off younger competition for his job
A former first round pick of the Colts, Brown has never justified his lofty draft status, but has managed to stick around for a respectable seven seasons, including some good moments with the Colts. His experience should be a plus as he attempts to pick up the offense, particularly in pass protection, where White has had his ups and downs. Like White, Brown's lack of size (5'10", 207) has prevented him from being effective between the tackles, as he's never had more than 134 carries in a season and has topped 4.0 yards per carry just twice in his career. Brown does bring versatility to the table, particularly in the passing game, but he likely needs to beat out White for a passing down role. I'd consider that a major upset, given Brown's advancing age and declining production.
A popular sleeper pick at this time last offseason, Gaffney went down with an undisclosed injury during the first weekend of training camp and spent a second straight season stashed on the injured reserve list. It remains to be seen if Gaffney can play at this level, as he missed all of his rookie season with a torn meniscus (the Patriots controversially claimed him when the Panthers waived him in an attempt to put him on the IR). A sixth round pick of the Panthers back in 2014, Gaffney is one of the bigger backs in this competition (he's listed at 6'0", 220) and his impressive college production hints at his potential as a between the tackles runner with some pass catching versatility. While he hasn't stayed healthy long enough to display any of that potential yet as a pro, a strong preseason could make him an intriguing candidate as Blount's early down backup. However, another injury or a non-descript camp and preseason could make this his final chance at making a pro roster.
The impact of losing Develin for the season was downplayed when the fullback went down in the preseason, but there were times last year when the stagnant running game clearly missed his physicality as a lead blocker. Coach Belichick repeatedly mentioned the need to improve the running game in the days following the season-ending loss to Denver. A desire to improve the running game can only help the case for an old-school fullback like Develin to make the roster. While a fullback's role is always tenuous in the modern pass-first NFL, Develin has proven to be adept at his lead-blocking role while being surprisingly effective when called upon as a check-down option. With no one else on the roster bringing that skillset to the table, I'd be mildly surprised if he doesn't make the cut this summer.
Iosefa is tough to tackle once he gets going downhill
Many fans mislabel Iosefa as a fullback due to his size, but I find it telling that the team lists him as a running back and not a fullback on the roster. Unlike Develin, Iosefa isn't particularly adept as a lead blocker, but is best utilized as a bruising, downhill runner between the tackles. His highlight reel worthy trucking of Tennessee's Coty Sensabaugh last season perfectly illustrated his strengths as a ball carrier. While that was one of the feel-good plays of last season, Iosefa's athletic limitations make him unlikely to become more than a one-dimensional power back. He'll have to improve his plodding straight-line speed to earn a consistent role with the big club.
Yet another back whose strengths lie in the passing game, Foster brings intriguing athletic upside to this competition. While he was undrafted, Foster was a priority free agent signing, as illustrated by his high signing bonus. Foster was a highly productive all-purpose back his first three seasons at Arizona State before switching to receiver as a senior. The position switch hurt his numbers and his draft stock, but still highlighted his ability to create passing game mismatches out of the backfield. At just 5'10" and 193 pounds, he's the smallest back of the bunch and unlikely to make an impact between the tackles. However, he's more explosive athletically than anyone but Lewis on this depth chart and figures to get plenty of opportunities to make plays during the preseason. With Lewis always an injury concern, Foster could be kept around as an extra layer of depth with the potential to eventually develop into a major playmaker.