FOXBORO, Mass. — Toward the end of Monday’s practice, Patriots coach Bill Belichick huddled the entire team near the 20-yard line, coaches included. His message seemed an obvious one. It had been a mostly low-key session. Belichick wanted more crispness, perhaps a sense of urgency.
The team then moved to the goal line. On the first practice of the 2023 season in which players donned full pads, Belichick sought physicality.
He put the ball on the 1. From there, the first-team offense ran the ball right up the middle — and was stuffed. (There are no refs at these practices, so it’s hard to know for sure whether Kevin Harris got the ball across the goal line.)
The offense lined back up. Same play. Stuffed again. Might have lost yards.
Rhamondre Stevenson, the trusted third-year running back the Pats are banking on for another big season, watched from a far field, only a limited participant on this day as the team seeks to balance his workload early in camp. Ty Montgomery, the talented but oft-injured running back/wide receiver, also missed the session, leaving the team with only three running backs.
Without Stevenson, the Patriots’ lack of running back depth is obvious and underscores a point that would’ve been true no matter how Monday’s goal-line practice went: The Patriots need to sign a veteran running back like Ezekiel Elliott or Dalvin Cook.
Is Rhamondre Stevenson enough to carry the Patriots’ run game?
In search of a return to the playoffs, the Patriots have too much riding on this season — and too much evidence of their deficiencies — to sit idly by as another team makes an offer too rich for them, as was the case with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Of course, this isn’t a slight on Stevenson. He’s great. He’s aiming to be New England’s first running back to notch back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since LeGarrette Blount.
Instead, it’s a recognition that it’s too difficult and too risky in today’s game to bank on just one running back to carry the load through a 17-game season. That’s something Belichick has seemingly known for years, as he was one of the first coaches to consistently use a by-committee approach at the position.
Even with Stevenson posting a successful 1,040-rushing-yard campaign, last season’s numbers bear that out. During the first part of the season, the Patriots had Damien Harris to spell Stevenson. As a result, from Weeks 1 through 7, the Patriots ranked seventh in the league in expected points added per rush and 11th in success rate per rush. From that point on, as Stevenson slowed down, they ranked 27th and 26th in those same stats.
Adding a player like Cook or Elliott could help fix that, though the latter seems the more likely option.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott is visiting with the Patriots on Saturday, league sources confirmed to The Athletic.
How could Elliott fit in New England?@ChadGraff provides analysis:https://t.co/hjq6YBHtHy
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) July 29, 2023
Belichick clearly feels there’s a need. He brought Leonard Fournette in for a workout last week. Then he welcomed Elliott for a visit over the weekend, complete with a trip to the Seaport for dinner with Mac Jones and running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri. The team has remained in touch with Elliott as they discuss a potential contract, per a team source familiar with the discussions. Cook seems less likely to land with the Pats after he visited the New York Jets over the weekend and hinted he could sign there soon.
But there are reasons to sign a player like Elliott that go beyond just giving Stevenson a break. Elliott is 28 years old, and while he’s not the same player that finished third in MVP voting as a rookie when he notched 1,631 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, he could be the perfect complement to Stevenson, setting up a heck of a one-two punch.
That’s because the two running backs, at this point in their career, offer different skill sets. Stevenson could get the bulk of the carries and deliver big-play potential. Last season, he ranked seventh among running backs in the percentage of plays that went for 12 yards or more. Elliott finished 39th in that category (among backs with at least 100 carries).
But Elliott thrived in the short-yardage situations in which Stevenson struggled. Elliott ranked fifth in the percentage of his carries that went for zero or negative yards. Stevenson was 25th in that stat. Elliott ranked seventh among running backs at third-down conversions, moving the chains on 67 percent of his third-down carries, per TruMedia. Stevenson was 28th.
Signing Elliott wouldn’t just add depth to the running back room (which needs it), but it would also complement what the Patriots already have. It would also help Jones, ideally improving a running game that declined at the end of last season, and help take some pressure off the quarterback’s shoulders.
The Patriots have the money to make an addition like Elliott work. They have more than $14 million in cap space this season and can easily add more. They also rank at the bottom of the league in cash spending in the coming years.
For some reason that’s still not entirely clear, the Patriots chose not to match the contract offer Hopkins got from the Tennessee Titans. But they have more than enough money to make a contract work with Elliott.
Patriots believed DeAndre Hopkins could help Mac Jones … before they saw the price tag
The Patriots drafted two running backs last year, selecting Pierre Strong in the fourth round and the aforementioned Harris in the sixth. But so far, neither has stood out during training camp while Stevenson has been limited. On Monday, Harris replaced Strong in the first-team reps.
Maybe both of them turn into good players. But the Patriots have a chance to sign a talented veteran running back — in either Cook or Elliott — and give the offense one of the best backfield duos in the NFL.
They should do that.
(Photo: Billie Weiss / Getty Images)
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