Running back is a position Bill Belichick has selected 12 times in his tenure as Patriots coach. Going all the way back to his first, JR Redmond in 2000, to Rhamondre Stevenson in 2021, there are some trends that have emerged.
The most obvious? The Patriots like size. They've never drafted a back checking in under 200 pounds. With early-down runners, they typically look for someone in the 215-pound range. Think Sony Michel (214), Damien Harris (216) and Laurence Maroney (217). But Patriots backs have climbed all the way up to closer to 225 or 230 pounds at times. Think Stevenson (231), Stevan Ridley (225) or last year's sixth-round pick Kevin Harris (221).
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Even third-down backs have had sturdy builds to help them hold up against NFL punishment as ball-carriers and pass-protectors. James White checked in at 204 pounds in 2014, while Shane Vereen weighed 210 pounds in 2011. Last spring, the Patriots selected Pierre Strong as a back with receiving ability at 207 pounds. Certain Patriots backs have made their way to Foxboro despite being undersized, like Dion Lewis (193) and JJ Taylor (185), but neither was drafted by Belichick.
Patriots backs -- early-down runners or sub backs -- have been good athletes but not necessarily burners. Most posted 40-yard dashes quicker than 4.6 seconds, but not much quicker. Michel (4.54), Harris (4.57) and White (4.57) didn't light up stopwatches. For years, Belichick's fastest backs -- Vereen (4.49), Maroney (4.48) and Redmond (4.48) -- hovered around the 4.5 mark as well. That was until he drafted the speedy Strong (4.37) so his priorities may be shifting.
Historically, having adequate agility -- a short-shuttle in the 4.2 range and about a 7.0-second three-cone -- seems to be of greater importance in Foxboro.
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Will the Patriots add a back after drafting two last year? They just let Damien Harris walk via free agency so they could be interested in adding another between-the-tackles body to provide depth behind Stevenson and Kevin Harris. They could also be looking for a pass-catcher if they feel as though Strong isn't quite what they need on third down.
Let's get to their draftable options...
Bijan Robinson, Texas, 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
If the Patriots went this route, he'd have to be their first-round pick. We can debate the value in making that kind of decision, but there is no debating Robinson's talent. He's one of the top players in this class regardless of position and one of the draft's true blue-chippers. He's likely the best back to enter the draft since Saquon Barkley. And he may be better than Barkley.
His vision, speed and elusiveness at his size are special. And he has legitimate receiving chops, including soft hands and nuanced route-running ability. Would the Patriots figure out a way to deploy both Robinson and Stevenson as do-it-all backs with different skill sets? Would the Patriots draft Robinson understanding they need a "scary" offensive weapon? He's one of the few sure things in this year's class in that regard. Just hard to envision. But maybe Belichick has a plan that he could tailor to both. It would be the ultimate zig-when-everyone-else-zags kind of call from a coach who has become known for those.
Zach Charbonnet, UCLA, 6-feet, 214 pounds
With a sturdy frame and plenty of athleticism (4.53-second 40), Charbonnet seems like the kind of hard-nosed runner Belichick would appreciate. Is he the quickest? The slipperiest in the open field? No and no. But he has no problem running through arm tackles and getting what's been blocked for him.
He averaged a whopping 7.0 yards per carry last season, and he also showed he could function on third down at the next level, reeling in 37 passes for 321 yards. If the Patriots want a do-it-all player and not have to spend a first-round pick on him, Charbonnet feels like their type.
Tank Bigsby, Auburn, 6-feet, 210 pounds
OK, so as it turns out, there are a bunch of guys who feel like their type. Add Bigsby to the list. For a coach in Belichick who loves a runner's ability to get what's not blocked, Bigsby will be enticing. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged a robust 4.2 yards after contact per attempt. His quickness for a back his size is rare -- he has a James White-ish dead-leg move in space that helps him embarrass defenders -- and his 40 time (4.45 seconds) would indicate there is more long speed there than some of his in-game production suggests.
Roschon Johnson, Texas, 6-feet, 219 pounds
Did we mention there are a boatload of backs the Patriots may like in this class? That may function as an argument against taking one in the first round. If the Patriots opt not to go with Robinson on Day 1, they could nab his teammate on Day 2. Though he didn't rack up the production Robinson did, Johnson has all kinds of characteristics that running backs coaches will drool over. He finishes runs hard -- he averaged 6.0 yards per carry and scored five times last year -- and fumbled only once in his career. He also served as a lead blocker at times for the Longhorns and he looks like one of the best special-teamers in the class as an experienced and productive (seven tackles last season) player in the kicking game.
Like some of the other "big backs" on this list, he has the ability to catch (56 receptions in his career) and pass protect, so his offensive work wouldn't be limited to early downs. Sound like someone Belichick might like?
Chase Brown, Illinois, 5-foot-9, 209 pounds
If Belichick wants an honest-to-goodness scouting report from someone at Illinois who would know, he could have it from Illini coach (and former Patriots assistant) Bret Bielema. Odds are he'll like what Bielema has to say about this cut-up athlete who has no fear of hammering runs in tight spaces between the tackles.
He had five fumbles in 2022, which will need to get cleaned up at the next level, but he was a tremendous tester and his athletic upside (4.43-second 40, 40-inch vertical) may allow the Patriots to overlook some of the warts in his game. Thanks in part to 27 catches for 240 yards and an eye-popping average of 136.9 rush yards per game, Brown ranked fourth in all of FBS with 1,883 all-purpose yards.
Kenny McIntosh, Georgia, 6-feet, 204 pounds
McIntosh might be best suited for our "sub back" category, but he appears to have the ability to do enough across all downs to warrant consideration for a more well-rounded role. First, the receiving skills are there. And then some. He racked up 509 receiving yards last year, and according to Pro Football Focus he didn't record a single drop in 75 career catchable targets. He also had just two fumbles in 193 touches last season. But he also ran for 5.5 yards per carry last season and picked up over 3.0 yards after contact per attempt. He could use some work as a pass protector, but he has a number of skills that will play right away at the next level.
Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky, 6-feet, 217 pounds
He'll run right through you without a second thought. Rodriguez has the kind of demeanor as a back that will play in Foxboro. He was also a two-time captain at Kentucky and was durable throughout the course of his five years with the Wildcats. He did miss four games last year after being arrested for driving under the influence. And he doesn't look like he'll be a factor in the passing game. But if the Patriots are looking for a hard-charging back to give Stevenson a blow every so often and keep him fresh for the long haul, Rodriguez would be the kind of addition that would tick off the linebackers and defensive backs forced to tackle more than one bruiser at the position for the Patriots.
Kendre Miller, TCU, 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
We don't have athletic testing data on Miller, who is dealing with a knee injury ahead of the draft. But he has the combination of size and agility you don't often find. If a gap is covered at the line, he has no issue bouncing laterally to the next. He forced 70 missed tackles last season alone, according to PFF, 12th most in the country.
Per Dane Brugler of the Athletic, Miller recorded at least one play of 20 yards or more in 12 of his 14 games last year. A hard-nosed runner who'll fight through first contact and is unusually elusive for someone his size? Adding Miller would mean the Patriots have two such backs on the roster.
Deneric Prince, Tulsa, 6-feet, 216 pounds
One of the best athletes in the class at the position -- particularly for someone approaching 220 pounds -- Prince could end up a Day 3 pick. His 4.41-second 40, 35.5-inch vertical and 6.97-second cone time are were excellent. There's potential there. He did miss four games last season after being deemed academically ineligible. Not exactly a "prototypical" path for the Patriots. But Prince has the size and athletic profile that's worth rolling the dice on later in the draft.
Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama, 5-foot-9, 199 pounds
Gibbs is arguably the best pass-catching back in the class. He dropped only two passes on 103 catchable targets, per PFF, and he didn't fumble despite 195 touches. He forced a whopping 39 missed tackles after receptions over the last three years. Yes, he ran for 926 yards on 151 carries (6.1 average) last year. But he's a tick under what the Patriots want in terms of weight at the position. Still, his skill set -- he ran a 4.36-second 40 at the combine -- might allow Belichick to make an exception to find a dynamic talent to take on his offense's sub role.
Tyjae Spears, Tulane, 5-foot-10, 201 pounds
One of the most entertaining players to watch in college football, Spears has done nothing but produce since 2021. He rushed for 862 yards and picked up another 145 receiving. Last year, he was the AAC Offensive Player of the Year (1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing, 22 catches and two touchdowns receiving), the Cotton Bowl MVP (four rushing touchdowns versus USC) and then he earned Practice Player of the Week at the Senior Bowl.
He's a willing pass protector despite a lighter frame, and he has ridiculous change of direction skills to go along with sure hands that will make him a third-down contributor early in his pro career. If the Patriots are looking for a James White successor, nabbing Spears on Day 2 seems like something they'd be interested in.
Israel Abanikanda, Pitt, 5-foot-10, 216 pounds
Abanikanda will begin his pro career at just 20 years old. Still plenty of tread on those tires. Good thing, too. Because if he can make a few adjustments to his running style early in his career -- even if it takes a year or two -- he could be a dangerous do-it-all threat given his athletic traits.
He blazed a 4.44-second 40 to go along with a 41-inch vertical. Those are eyebrow-raising figures for someone over 215 pounds. He doesn't always play to that size and doesn't do much as a runner after contact, but he's a capable receiver (38 grabs in his career) and in the open field his ability to accelerate makes him a threat for a big play. A kick-return option, Abanikanda could offer the Patriots some value in that regard early in his career.
Evan Hull, Northwestern, 5-foot-10, 209 pounds
There wasn't an FBS back with more receiving yards than what Hull posted for the Wildcats last season (536 yards). Then consider the excellent combine he put together -- 4.47-second 40, 37-inch vertical, 10-foot-3 broad, 6.9-second three-cone -- and he should be on every team's list of intriguing pass-catching back options.
His issue at the moment is in pass protection. That may make him a developmental option and a no-go for the Patriots if they want someone who can contribute in 2023. But they have a tendency to redshirt their sub backs. Hull could be an ideal option for that kind of early-career path to the field.
Derek Parish, Houston, 6-feet, 241 pounds
The Patriots have a history of turning defensive players into fullbacks. James Develin was a defensive lineman at Brown. Jakob Johnson began his career at Tennessee at linebacker before shifting to tight end. Could Parish be the next to make the transition? He spent the entirety of his career for the Cougars as an edge defender but then went to the East-West Shrine Bowl -- where the Patriots coached the West team -- and played fullback.
What might make him worthy of a draft pick despite his limited experience on offense? His athleticism. He ran a 4.58-second 40 at his pro day to go along with a 37-inch vertical. Most impressive were his change-of-direction drills. He ran a 4.07-second short shuttle and a 6.76-second three-cone. Those are elite numbers, especially at his size. He has the demeanor for it and the movement skills. He has the size. Why can't he be a fullback and core special-teamer at the next level?
Jack Colletto, Oregon State, 6-foot-3, 237 pounds
Wouldn't you know it? Another defender-turned-fullback here. Colletto played linebacker and functioned as a short-yardage back at Oregon State after originally showing up to campus as a quarterback transfer from Arizona Western. He's not the athlete Parish is, but his versatility and willingness to do whatever he can to get on the field makes him seem like Belichick's type.
Like Parish, Colletto played at the Shrine Bowl as well, meaning the Patriots had a chance to watch him work up close. Might they want to grab the Paul Hornung Award winner for the second consecutive season? Colletto took home the honor for 2022 after Marcus Jones won it in 2021.