Running back looks like it will be a strength of the New England Patriots‘ offense in 2019. Leading rusher Sony Michel returns for his second year, while James White led the team with 87 receptions. Add Rex Burkhead, rookie Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden, Nick Brossette and fullback James Develin, and the running back room is pretty crowded going into training camp.
What might give a couple of those players an edge over the competition? During a guest analyst stint last week for ESPN, former Patriots running back Shane Vereen shared some advice he learned from quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. It’s a big reason why White, who Vereen called the best route runner among NFL running backs, has succeeded in the New England offense.
“It’s not necessarily catching the ball. It’s not necessarily getting open. What it is, it’s getting to the right spot,” Vereen said, via ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “Getting to the spot where the quarterback expects you to be. Getting to the spot where there is no defense — if it’s a zone, sitting in the void; if it’s man, breaking away the right way, not running into another route.”
Vereen played four seasons with the Patriots, from 2011 through 2014. In Super Bowl XLIX, he caught a then-record 11 passes (a mark broken by White in the big game two years later). He added, “I don’t think a lot of people pay enough attention to it … but those are even more important than actually catching the ball and making a play.”
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Michel, 24, is expected to be the starter after rushing for 931 yards last season. That total was compiled despite missing three games due to knee issues that date back to his college days at Georgia. However, Michel only caught seven passes for 50 yards and opportunities to get him more involved in the passing game were lost when he didn’t participate in New England’s spring minicamp.
That gives Harris a chance to leapfrog Michel on the Patriots’ depth chart. At Alabama last season, Harris caught 24 passes for 204 yards. Over four years in Tuscaloosa, he totaled 52 receptions for 407 yards.
Both backs, who will likely split most of the workload, may want to take notes if either of them wonders why White is in the game on passing downs. Rushing and receiving stats are important and indicate how well a player is producing. But in the Patriots’ offense, running backs accustomed to hundreds of carries and 1,000-yard seasons might have to measure their success differently.