Training Camp Positional Battle Preview: Running Back

With Brandon Bolden out, there is new life in the fight for a backfield reserve role in New England
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The New England Patriots’ top-three ball-carriers will all be returning in 2020, but a key loss in the reserve role has sparked competition towards the end of the roster.

Brandon Bolden, who has rushed for 1,568 all-purpose yards over the course of his eight-year NFL career, opted out of the 2020 season Tuesday. While Bolden has primarily played a special teams role in New England, he was still on the field for 8.3% of the team’s offensive stats.

The Patriots carried five running backs on the roster in 2019, and with Bolden gone, five remain on the 2020 training camp squad.

Even with slightly more job security now that Bolden is gone, the share of carries is still up in the air, and the volatile regular season rotation will be determined by training camp over the next month.

Uncertainty for Sony Michel

Bill Belichick showed faith in Sony Michel when they drafted him in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

He showed faith in him again when he made him the lead back for two straight seasons.

However, Michel’s production in years one and two were drastically different.

Michel saw his percentage of offensive snaps played jump from 28.6% in 2018 to 36.5% in 2019, but he managed to post 19 fewer rushing yards on 38 more carries. His 71.6 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry dipped to 57.0 and 3.7, respectively, and he underwent foot surgery this offseason as well.

Between an injury limiting his training camp participation and a sophomore slump hanging over him, Michel may see his carries roll back in 2020. His talent is still there, and he is the first Patriot running back to post back-to-back 900-plus-yard seasons since Antowain Smith in 2001 and 2002.

But at least to start the season, it remains to be seen if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can fully rely on Michel.

Young Backs Competing

Any carries lost through Bolden and Michel’s injury likely won’t go to James White or Rex Burkhead, who are primarily pass-catchers and Swiss Army Knives.

Instead, those touches will be left for Damien Harris and JJ Taylor to fight over.

Harris was one of the Patriots’ third-round picks in 2019, and his 103 yards from scrimmage in Week 2 of the 2019 preseason put him on the map as a potential contributor as a rookie. Instead, he was crowded out and only picked up four carries all season.

Taylor went undrafted this April, but his 3,263 career rushing yards at Arizona ranked fourth in program history. While his 4.61-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine didn’t blow anyone away, he ranked third among running backs in the three-cone drill and second in the 20-yard shuttle.

The undrafted rookie has to worry about making the final roster before concerning himself with snap counts, but with Bolden gone, his chance of suiting up this fall increased dramatically.

The Verdict

Regardless of the final cuts and Michel’s health, Burkhead and White will play very similar roles in the Patriots’ offense in 2020. Even with a new starting quarterback leading the way – whoever that may be – the duo will remain an important part of McDaniels’ backfield as both ball-carriers and pass-catchers.

The questions that remain to be answered are related to Michel’s health and Bolden’s replacement.

Michel may not be ready for Week 1, but by season’s end, he will likely get back to picking up 15 carries per game. In the meantime, Harris and Taylor should both make the roster and fight for those carries.

Due to Taylor’s 5-foot-6 frame, he is unlikely to take over as Bolden’s replacement on special teams. His dynamism on offense, however, will keep him in contention for snaps early in the season, so long as he puts together a solid and consistent camp.

Harris’ ceiling that he demonstrated in the preseason last year shows he would be the favorite to win out that battle, but Taylor could find a way on the field in some capacity as well.