Patriots 2024 roster reset: Where can Pats find running back upgrade?

Patriots 2024 roster reset: Where can Pats find running back upgrade? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Editor's Note: With the beginning of NFL free agency looming on March 13, our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran is resetting each Patriots position by assessing their 2023 performance, laying out their 2024 contract status and ranking their offseason priority on a scale of 1 to 5.

Next up: running back.

Let’s acknowledge the qualifiers. Running back is one of the more dependent positions in the game. How well is a running play blocked? What kind of front is he running into? How effectively does the passing game impact a defense’s ability to load up near the line of scrimmage?

All that said, the Patriots' running game in 2023 was weak. They ran for 1,627 yards on 415 carries with nine rushing touchdowns. They were 25th in yards per carry (3.9) and 26th in rushing yards per game as a team (95.7). The running back complement was redundant and not deep. Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 340 of the team's 415 carries and seven of the nine touchdowns.

Elliott also was the more productive pass-catching back, and the Patriots' lack of a change-up back (Ty Montgomery was ticketed to fill that role) was again a roster miscalculation. For a team that won a Super Bowl in 2018 featuring a running game with a bell-cow back (Sony Michel), a hybrid back (Rex Burkhead) and a sub-back (James White), the 2023 Patriots relying on two 225-pound backs was odd. The failure to replace White or even have a succession plan in place remains head-scratching.

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Maybe the team intended to have Pierre Strong, a fourth-rounder in 2022, as the sub-back when they selected him. But they dealt him in the offseason and he went to Cleveland and ran for 291 on 4.6 yards per carry. The other 2022 draftee, Kevin Harris, looked OK in his limited duty (16 carries, 65 yards).

The Patriots go into the player-acquisition period looking to improve in production and personnel.

"I think running the football in this league wins games, wins championships," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said in a video posted to the Patriots' X account. "We have to do that late in the season."

Bright spots from 2023

Ezekiel Elliott probably stands apart as the bright spot. After pussyfooting around with Elliott and Dalvin Cook through the summer, the Patriots signed Elliott in August.

He showed up in shape and with a tremendous and infectious attitude. He ran tough as hell all season into defenses that had zero fear of Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe battering them with their arms and decision-making. He had 235 touches and managed 955 yards from scrimmage. While those numbers seem pedestrian, you can understand what he was dealing with when you see his YBC (yards before catch) was -1.2 yards.

They threw sideways and backwards. More than half of his rushing yards (350) came after contact. He also played every game. A pending free agent, he’s just 28 and figures to be a lower-cost option still.

Stevenson, still one of the league’s better young backs, had a difficult season. He played 12 games and battled myriad injuries throughout the year. Stevenson – like Elliott – had more than half of his 619 yards after contact. He had a drop-off as a pass-catcher with 38 after catching 69 in 2022.

His concentration seems to slip occasionally on some throws, but to reiterate, the pace on the ball and the accuracy from the quarterbacks was not great last year.

Disappointments from 2023

Ty Montgomery was the presumed third-down back but he was once again injury-plagued. He had three carries for nine yards and five catches for 40. That was it. That was the plan.

That Stevenson, Elliott and Harris accounted for ALL of the running back carries and their leading rusher – Elliott – was basically added at the 11th hour is again indicative of the total lack of urgency of the Bill Belichick-led personnel department. What did they think was going to happen?

Contract statuses for 2024

Elliott’s contract is up. He made $3 million last year when all bonuses were realized. His valuation for most of the year was well above that. He’d be a smart re-sign.

Stevenson has one year remaining on his rookie contract. He’ll make $3.1 million in salary this year. Harris’ salary is $985,000. JaMycal Hasty, claimed off waivers in November, is also on the roster and set to make $1.2 million. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick by the Bucs in 2020, has a $1.125 million base.

The Patriots are last in the league in positional spending on offense ($58 million). They were 29th in running back spending last season and currently have $6.6 million on the books for this year, which is 16th.

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

It’s a 5. Which is what quarterback and wide receiver were as well, in my opinion.

They need a change-of-pace, pass-catching back who can operate more quickly in space than Elliott and Stevenson. They could also use a Burkhead-type who can do both (although Elliott is a good option for that). Stevenson, behind a better line, could see a bounce-back season in the final year of his rookie deal.

Austin Ekeler has some wear on him at 29, but he’s a free agent who is a proven pass-catcher. He’s coming off a down year with the Chargers. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has fallen into disuse in Kansas City and is a former first-rounder who has sub-back size and skill at 5-foot-7 and 207 pounds.

It’s a very lean running back class in this year’s draft, so value could be had in the third round or later. Bucky Irving from Oregon is the kind of back the Patriots could benefit from adding. He's a very good pass-catcher, can run inside despite smaller stature and incredibly slippery.