When the New England Patriots selected Damien Harris in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, fans put their arms in the air, wondering why the Patriots were targeting a running back when they had so many other needs on the board.
Harris would go on to sit out his rookie season, then come to training camp the following offseason and take over the starting running back role from there. Harris would go on to become the No. 2-ranked running back in the league last year, according to PFF.
Now, just two drafts later, New England finds itself in a similar situation, as the Patriots picked Oklahoma RB Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round with the 120th overall pick. And while some may have thought the Patriots would address some positions of higher need at this pick, New England appears to be thinking ahead again by taking this thumper of a back.
With Rex Burkhead likely a distant memory now, and the Patriots inching closer to having to make a decision on Sony Michel's fifth-year option, Stevenson will come in to help shape the future of the backfield. It looks to be a bruising combination that no defense will enjoy having to face.
Stevenson fits well into a gap-running scheme, which the Patriots will employ behind a huge, physical, locomotive-like offensive line that contends for one of the best offensive line units the team has ever assembled. With 246-pound Stevenson running north-south along with other big runners like Harris and Cam Newton, this will be a group that no one will want to bring down.
Speaking of Michel's name and his fifth-year option, it cannot be exaggerated enough that this pick is a full indicator that this will likely be Michel's last season with the team. Assuming that Michel even makes the team at this point, the 2018 first-round pick hasn't shown enough to be a running back deserving of a second contract. Unfortunately, a great deal of the reasoning behind that is Michel being hampered by recurring knee injuries that have been his kryptonite since his college days at Georgia.
However, the Patriots are doing here what lots of teams are turning to now. That's letting their running back hit the open market after taking their cheap, rookie replacement who can eventually replace their production. So, while a fourth-round pick in a draft with some other needs may seem pricey to some fans, having a fresh back with no injury history on a rookie deal is a better alternative in a stark comparison to paying Michel a big chunk of money.
Besides the fact that New England could have gone in many different directions with this pick, Stevenson as a prospect also brings some question marks. The main question mark here is when he'll play. As mentioned before, Harris sat out his rookie year, James White did, Shane Vereen, etc. Bill Belichick generally finds it difficult to trust rookie runningbacks with ball security, picking up blocking assignments, etc. Very rarely does a rookie running back see significant playing time with the Patriots. Ironically, first-round pick Michel was one of those exceptions.
But it seems possible that Stevenson sits idly by in sweatpants in his rookie year. That would mean that here in the fourth round, with a lot of directions the team could have gone, the Patriots drafted a player who will not be an immediate contributor. That being said, that shouldn't as big of a concern as another point.
The other concern that is worth monitoring with Stevenson and the New England backfield as a whole is regarding speed. Behind an offensive line like this, it would have made sense to target a back who has the explosiveness and long speed to be a home-run threat. Stevenson, just like the rest of the Patriots' backs, does not have that. As it stands right now, there doesn't appear to be a guy on the running back depth chart (maybe J.J Taylor, but we'll see if he makes the team) who can be that big-play threat. That is rather surprising, again, behind a big bruising offensive line that can open up holes for a player like this.
Last season and before, Burkhead was typically leaned on the most to provide those big plays for the New England rushing attack, White obviously being another here. However, even they don't have that home-run speed that the group is missing.
It felt almost a certainty that if the Patriots did in fact go running back in this draft, it would be the prototypical White replacement who could be explosive and catch the ball out of the backfield, to then take over when White's contract expires next season. New England went in a different direction, replacing Michel instead of White, and we'll have to see if it pans out for them.
Stevenson's popular comparison being thrown around is LeGarrette Blount. While this isn't to say that Stevenson is destined for a season like Blount's 2016 when he punched in a team-record 18 rushing touchdowns, this is to say that the team now will have an imposing duo at the top of the depth chart of Harris and Stevenson to wear down opposing defenses.
If you should read anything from this pick, it should just simply further speak to the fact that the Patriots have been building a smash-mouth football team on both sides of the ball this offseason. Stevenson is just a small part of what has been a huge push to get back to basics, with multiple tight ends, a very talented offensive line, and some bowling ball running backs who will bounce off you and run down your throat.
To top that all off, the Patriots still have Newton as a rushing threat, along with drafting a quarterback who will play the more game-manager style that New England feels comfortable with. Look for them to try to dominate opposing front sevens and dominate the time of possession over the length of Stevenson's rookie contract.