As the Patriots embark on their 2016 season, there are still some questions that need to be answered, regardless of how talented this team is. The one area with the biggest question mark is running back, and although someone typically emerges to take the majority of the snaps, this season seems different. Here is how the depth chart is currently set:
Fullbacks- James Develin
Traditional Backs- LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, Joey Iosefa, Donald Brown
Third Down Backs- James White, Dion Lewis (PUP), DJ Foster
Not exactly murderers row when it comes to the running back depth chart, but there are some guys in the mix that could have a strong season for the Patriots. Even with Dion Lewis on the PUP and not fully healthy from his torn ACL last season, they still have James White, who proved he could make plays and handle the load after Lewis went down. New England would be smart to hold off on Lewis until Week Six, that way he can have a full year to recover. With White and the underrated DJ Foster, the third down position appears to be in good hands for 2016.
Fullback is also an area where New England should be good to go after the return of James Develin, the hammer-type fullback who tore his ACL last preseason. Develin brings a toughness to the offense that was missing in 2015 and will be a welcome addition to the Patriots offensive backfield. Brady loves him, so assuming Develin is healthy, Brady will get one of his binkies back when he returns vs. the Browns in Week Five. With Garoppolo getting his first chance to start over a prolonged period, we get the feeling he's going to love Develin too.
Now, things do seem pretty strong at fullback, and third down also seems to be covered very well, but who is going to be the traditional first and second down backs for this team? Right now it would appear that Legarrette Blount is the favorite to carry the load, but Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe recently reported that Blount doesn't look right after his return from a hip injury and there is a real chance he could be cut. If Blount can't handle the load, the first guy to get a shot will most likely be Brandon Bolden, but he's proven in the past that he is simply a depth guy and isn't the best option for the majority of the carries.
Tyler Gaffney is an interesting player because he was excellent at Stanford and has the body and ability to be an every-down NFL back, but he's dealt with injuries for two years and hasn't been able to show what he can do. Assuming he's healthy, Bill Belichick will give him every opportunity to show what he can do. If he is back to the form he showed as a senior at Stanford, he could end up being a hidden gem this season.
Donald Brown, the former 1st Round selection of the Indianapolis Colts out of UConn, also signed as an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons with the San Diego Chargers. Brown's best season came with the Colts in 2011 when he carried the ball 134 times for 645 yards and five touchdowns. That was the highest amount of carries he's ever received in one season as a pro, and he ran for 4.8 yards per carry. Brown has a lot of tread on the tires, and considering he is a talented player who just hasn't got an extended chance, he seems like the type of Patriots running back that will come out of nowhere to have a big season. I'm going to predict that this is Browns best year since 2011.
There are a few free agents that New England could be interested in, but none of them are better than anyone they have on the roster. Reggie Bush has been a player the Patriots have targeted in the past, but with their strong depth at the third down back, it doesn't make a lot of sense to sign him, unless they want to use him on early downs too, which is something he did during his best two seasons in the NFL. Ahmad Bradshaw is another interesting name on the list, and he's always played well against New England, but he's 30 and has dealt with injuries throughout his career. If he remains on the market and New England has issues with injuries, don't be surprised to see Belichick take a flyer on the former Giant and Colt.
The depth chart may not feature big names, but the Patriots have found a way to win with average running backs for years, and it appears they'll head into the 2016 with the same plan. Some advice for the fantasy football players out there- steer clear of this situation because it will make you go bald trying to figure out who will get the most carries from week to week.
Statistics Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Follow me @chris_simoneau