Each week leading up to the draft, the Foxboro Blog crew will spend a week breaking down a position on the Patriots' roster. We'll start with a quick overview and then move onto a discussion involving potential draftees at that spot as well as free-agents that the Patriots may pursue. Up this week are the running backs...
2010 Recap: The Patriots started the 2010 season with five backs in the fold and by the time January rolled around, only one of them would be making significant contributions. Veteran Fred Taylor appeared to be the leading candidate for the top back position during the pre-season, but was sidelined early in the year with a toe injury. Kevin Faulk's season was lost early on due to a torn ACL. Former 1st round pick, Laurence Maroney found himself back in Belichick's dog house and eventually on a flight to Denver after being traded for a 4th round pick. Sammy Morris made the bulk of his contributions on special teams as he was called to carry the football all of 20 times in 2010. And then there was BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who spent training camp and the preseason on the roster bubble fighting desperately for his spot. In the end, he was the lone survivor of the original running back corps and, in their absence, managed to put together the best season by any back since Clock Killin' Corey Dillon.
BenJarvus' 1,000+ yards were complimented by Jets cast-off, Danny Woodhead, who was picked up by Belichick during Week 3. In stark contrast to Green-Ellis' ground and pound approach, Woodhead earned his playing time by sneaky, quick, and impossible to tackle. Often the smallest man on the field, Danny had no problem taking and dishing out big hits to move the ball down the field. Together, the unlikely duo formed an attack that gashed through opposing defenses. They brought much needed balance to a pass-heavy Patriots offense, and their rushing success opened up numerous play-action opportunities for Tom Brady.
Returning Players: Thomas Clayton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead
Patriots Free-Agents: Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor
2011 Outlook: The Patriots should feel confident in their running game heading into next season with the Green-Ellis/Woodhead combo intact. However, if the 2010 season taught us anything, it's that you simply never know what can happen over the course of a 16, or potentially now an 18 game season. An injury to either player would be a major setback to the offense, and so you can expect Bill Belichick to stock up on some running backs during the off-season.
In terms of the draft, one name that has been linked to the Patriots is Mark Ingram of Alabama. If he falls to the #28 spot, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots take him with their second 1st round pick. There are more pressing needs on both the offensive and defensive line, as well as outside linebacker, but with the plethora of picks that New England holds in the first three rounds, they may be able to take a "luxury" selection. In the 2011 Draft, Ingram is considered to be the top running back with a pretty steep drop-off in talent after him, so it may be wise to pounce if the opportunity presents itself.
If the Patriots don't end up with Ingram, it becomes increasingly difficult to peg which back they'll target. Still, missing out on Ingram doesn't mean a quality rusher can't be had. With the 2010 rushing title holder being the undrafted Arian Foster, it's safe to say that a franchise-caliber back can be found in nearly any round. It's just up to Bill Belichick to figure out who that special player is.
On the free-agent side, the Patriots have plenty of veterans whose contracts have run out. Given Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris' injury histories, it's hard to see the team taking out further fliers on either vet. Kevin Faulk is an interesting case as he's clearly one of the great all-time Patriots. I think every fan would like to see him suit up again next season and give it another go, but it's hard to justify a roster spot for him as Woodhead serves almost the exact same role. Unlike last year when the Patriots carried five backs, I think they will find themselves limited to four given the large infusion of rookies that will be drafted this year. I forsee those spots going to BJGE, Woodhead, a draft pick, and then, most likely, and outside free agent that has a little more gas left in his tank than Faulk.