The Patriots got let out for summer vacation a few days early this year when Bill Belichick cancelled the final two OTA sessions on Monday. The team will have a little over a month to enjoy the weather and their new bling until training camp starts in late July. With roster cuts looming, the running back position is one of several that stand to get trimmed down. The trio of James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead will return. Accompanying them is Brandon Bolden, back from his one-year vacation to Miami, and rookies Damien Harris and Nick Brossette.
The Patriots tend to enjoy a crowded backfield, so for them to keep four or five running backs would make sense. Following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, the running game will be even further under the spotlight this season.
So who lives to see the 53-man roster, and who doesn’t?
James White: Entering his sixth year with New England, White has appeared in at least 14 games for five straight seasons. He posted career highs across the board last year, including carries, catches, rushing yards, receiving yards, and touchdowns. His role within the Patriot system has only grown over the years, as has Tom Brady’s trust in him. White will return as Brady’s favorite target next to Julian Edelman, and is firmly among the most important players on the entire roster.
Sony Michel: The sophomore out of Georgia missed all three mandatory practices last week, but whether a previous injury or a new development held him out remains to be seen. Michel led the Patriots in carries, rush yards, and rush touchdowns as a rookie. After showing so much promise last year, his workload should expand even further in 2019. He has a bit of a laundry list of injuries, but training camp will provide some much needed clarity. After a tremendous rookie campaign, Michel could, and should, breakout this season if his health holds up.
Rex Burkhead: Burkhead joined the Patriots ahead of the 2017 season, but injuries have caused him to miss 14 regular season games over the last two years. However, he has settled in nicely as the third horse in the running back stable. His biggest contribution is that extra level of depth to an injury-prone backfield, especially with Michel’s status to be determined. His touches will be harder to come by this year, however. A few new faces, and one familiar one, will be sure to get their chances to prove themselves this season.
Brandon Bolden: After spending his first four years as a contributing member of the Patriot backfield, Bolden shifted into an almost exclusive role on special teams in 2017 and 2018 before signing with the Dolphins on a one-year deal. He managed only 8 carries for 91 yards with Miami, however. His only two touchdowns came against his current employer in the game that culminated in the so-called “Miami Miracle”. The Dolphins finished the year at 7-9, for what it’s worth. Bolden will return to the Patriots with insider knowledge on the backfield and special teams, and Belichick will surely find a spot for him.
Damien Harris: The Patriots drafted Harris with the 87th overall pick in the third round of this year’s draft, and it’s time to get excited for the newest Patriot out of Alabama. Harris backed up Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans his freshman year. He beat out Bo Scarborough the next year, assumed starting running back responsibilities, and never looked back. Harris racked up 3,070 yards and 23 touchdowns in four seasons with the Crimson Tide, including consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons in 2016 and 2017. He averaged over six yards per carry and added 52 receptions for 407 yards. To top it off, Harris has experience as a kick returner. After cashing in on Sony Michel just last year, the Patriots didn’t use a third-round pick for Harris to play on the practice squad.
On the Cut Line
Nick Brossette: The other rookie challenging for a spot in the backfield also spent four years in the SEC, but his college career was not nearly as productive as Harris’. He joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent following the draft. Brossette’s only real production came his senior year, where he rushed for 1,039 yards and 14 touchdowns on 240 carries. With very limited pass-catching experience, Brossette currently sits at the bottom of the food chain in the Patriots’ backfield. Furthermore, the 23 year-old LSU product did not practice in front of the media once last week.
The Patriots have become notorious for featuring any number of backs on any given Sunday. I’m sure many fantasy owners of New England running backs can attest to that. Don’t be surprised if Belichick keeps five backs on the 53-man roster. After all, the position only grows more important as Brady’s clock keeps ticking.
P.S. Don’t worry, James Develin is going to make the roster.
–Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media, and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @_ethanroy