Patriots offseason

Why Patriots might not need Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook

The Pats might have the running backs they need already on the roster.

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The New England Patriots have been rumored to have interest in, or at least be intrigued by the idea of adding another veteran running back to the roster with training camp set to begin next week at Gillette Stadium.

They reportedly brought free agent Leonard Fournette to Foxboro for a visit Wednesday. Leonard has spent the last three seasons playing with Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dalvin Cook is available, too. The former Minnesota Vikings star reportedly has received an offer from the Miami Dolphins, but that contract is not to his liking. The Patriots also had veteran Darrell Henderson in for a free agent visit this week.

The primary reason to bring in a veteran running back is to lessen Rhamondre Stevenson's workload. The Patriots starter had a breakout Year 2 and set career highs with 1,040 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He also set career highs with 69 receptions and 421 receiving yards. Stevenson should get plenty of touches in 2023, but it's important not to overwork him.

The debate on how to accomplish that objective basically comes down to this: Should the Patriots sign a veteran for the role or trust that one of their young running backs -- Pierre Strong Jr. or Kevin Harris -- is up to the task?

Both Strong and Harris were drafted last year. Strong was a fourth-round pick out of South Dakota State and Harris was a sixth-round selection from South Carolina. Strong and Harris combined for 20 attempts all season, and most of that work came in a Week 14 matchup against the Cardinals in Arizona when Stevenson exited early due to an injury.

Strong ran for 70 yards and a touchdown on five carries, including a 44-yard burst in the third quarter. Harris picked up 23 yards on six carries, including a touchdown.

Strong and Harris showed flashes of exciting potential and ability, but it was such a small sample size. However, there is reason to believe that at least one of them can play a meaningful role next season and beyond. And that's because the Patriots have done a really good job identifying quality running backs in the NFL Draft, especially after the first round.

Whether it was Shane Vereen, James White or Stevenson now, the Patriots know what to look for in running backs. They identify players who can help in a certain role -- like being a pass catcher out of the backfield -- and put them in a position to succeed.

White is probably the best example. Much like Strong and Harris, White didn't play much his rookie season in 2014. Vereen was the primary running back on passing downs, and he caught 11 passes for 64 yards and picked up six first downs in the Patriots' 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

Vereen departed the ensuing offseason and White seized the opportunity. He quickly became one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league and averaged 60.6 receptions per season from 2015 through 2020. His performance against the Atlanta Falcons during the Patriots' epic 28-3 comeback win in Super Bowl LI is one of the best in the sport's championship history. White tallied 14 receptions, 139 total yards and three total touchdowns, including the winning score in overtime.

The Patriots have had a solid 1-2 punch at running back for a long time. In recent years we've seen LeGarrette Blount and Vereen, Blount and White, Dion Lewis and White, Sony Michel and White, Damien Harris and White, and Stevenson and Harris. Will we see Stevenson and Strong/Kevin Harris in 2023?

As exciting as it would be if Fournette or Cook came to Foxboro, the best idea might be to give one of these young running backs a chance. If one of them seizes the opportunity, all of a sudden you have a multi-year solution at a low cost, which allows resources to be devoted to other positions on the roster that are weaker.

The Patriots have proven for almost two decades that they can draft and develop running backs. So we might as well give them the benefit of the doubt if they don't sign Fournette or Cook. It wouldn't be shocking at all if Strong or Harris surprises in a positive way this coming season.

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