Why Rhamondre Stevenson will soon be considered a top-10 NFL running back

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Perry: Why Stevenson will soon be considered a top-10 NFL running back originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

When ESPN revealed its list of top-10 running backs in the NFL, ranked by league execs, coaches, scouts and players who spoke with Jeremy Fowler, there were no Patriots named.

But by this time next year, when the running back rankings come out, New England should see its team represented.

Yes, Rhamondre Stevenson was that good as a rookie.

Thanks to his rare physical skill set and greater opportunity in his second season -- we'll soon explain why he'll see more touches -- Stevenson will have a chance to show he's among the league's most talented backs.

Where's the evidence, you ask?

According to Pro Football Reference, Stevenson ranked fourth in the league in yards after contact per attempt (2.7 yards), behind only Seattle's Rashaad Penny (3.1), Cleveland's Nick Chubb (3.0) and Indy's Jonathan Taylor (2.8). He broke 16 tackles on just 133 regular-season carries, a rate of one broken tackle for every 8.3 carries -- the second-best such rate in football behind only Denver's Javonte Williams (6.5).

It's not all that difficult to see how he does it.

At 6-feet and 230 pounds, Stevenson has the size and athleticism to provide headaches for would-be tacklers at the second and third levels of opposing defenses. But the effort with which he finishes his runs and his balance to be able to keep his legs churning after contact made him a consistent big-play threat with the ball in his hands as a rookie.

His explosiveness to get runs started -- especially for a man his size -- was impressive, too. His burst stood out to his college running backs coach DeMarco Murray when Murray saw him run special teams reps. It wasn't long before the Sooners staff steered Stevenson's focus away from being one of their best players in the kicking game and toward helping them offensively.

When you drill down on Stevenson's production -- particularly in the second half of last season -- is when you realize he has a shot to soon be considered among the cream at his position.

From Weeks 9-18, Stevenson graded out as Pro Football Focus' fourth-best running back with at least 100 carries. He was third in yards per carry (4.8), and he produced PFF's third-best "elusive rating," which is the site's attempt to quantify what a runner does independent of his blocking by looking at broken-tackle numbers, tackles avoided and yards gained after first contact.

During the second half of the season, Stevenson's elusive rating (90.8) placed him ahead of Taylor (74.0) -- the No. 2 back on ESPN's list behind Derrick Henry -- as well as Austin Ekeler (46.9), Dalvin Cook (45.4) and Ezekiel Elliott (18.2). Williams and Chubb were the only players who were better in that regard.

Stevenson had just 24 carries in the first eight weeks of his rookie season, and his massive bump in work down the stretch would suggest that Bill Belichick has warmed to using his multi-talented back more often in Year 2.

During Patriots OTAs, Stevenson was open in his desire to contribute more on third down in his sophomore season, and it looks like he'll have an opportunity to do exactly that. James White is slowly returning to action after missing most of last season with a hip injury. And rookie Pierre Strong Jr., who looks like a fit as a "sub" back, will in all likelihood be given some time to find his footing as a pass-protector and route-runner before he's trusted on that all-important down. (White, a fourth-round pick like Strong, didn't play as a rookie in 2014. He took a backseat to Shane Vereen in order to get adjusted to his eventual role.)

Based on Stevenson's work in the second half of last season, based on the passing-game opportunities that should be available to him in 2022, he's on track to find himself considered in the top-10 at his position sooner rather than later.

Phil Perry on Stevenson's outlook for 2022

That should open up the door for Stevenson to do more as a pass-catcher this coming season. He caught 14 passes for 123 yards last year, and proved he was a bear to tackle in the open field. Per PFF he averaged 1.54 yards per route run. That efficiency figure ranked eighth among backs last season and placed him just behind some of the best pass-catching backs in football like Ekeler (1.55) and Kamara (1.62).

Because the Patriots like to use a rotation in their backfield, because Damien Harris still will get his fair share of carries, Stevenson may not amass the counting stats of some other workhorse backs.

But based on his work in the second half of last season, based on the passing-game opportunities that should be available to him in 2022, he's on track to find himself considered in the top-10 at his position sooner rather than later.