Signing veteran running backs has long been a successful policy for the New England Patriots in free agency. Head coach Bill Belichick can continue this trend in 2023 by acquiring a former NFL rushing leader before training camp.
Kareem Hunt has been named a fit for the Patriots by ex-Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. Writing for The 33rd Team, Spielman noted how the Pats “are famous for signing veteran running backs.” Spielman also pointed out “Hunt could help quarterback Mac Jones and the rest of the offense under new coordinator Bill O’Brien.”
Adding Hunt would give New England’s offense a highly versatile back able to support lead workhorse Rhamondre Stevenson in a variety of ways. Hunt, who led the league with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017, also represents a cheaper alternative to Dalvin Cook.
Four-time Pro Bowler Cook has been heavily linked with the Patriots since his release from the Vikings.
Pro Bowl Running Back Ideal for Patriots
Hunt has been looking for a new team since ending a four-year stint with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns believe the 27-year-old “was ‘slipping’ in terms of his speed,” according to Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com, but Belichick needn’t have any such worries.
Belichick has traditionally looked for experienced backs to fill specific roles. Like when he acquired LeGarrette Blount and Rex Burkhead to run between the tackles. Or when the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee for his work at the goal-line. There have also been times when Belichick has signed backs primarily for their talents catching passes. Veterans like Larry Centers and Dion Lewis.
Fortunately, Hunt ticks all of those boxes by himself. He’s still a useful receiver, evidenced by his 211 career catches. Hunt tallied 35 of those receptions last season, including this touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.
Being efficient from near the end zone is nothing new to Hunt. He was prolific during the 2021 season, when he “punched in 3-of-4 inside-the-five carries,” per Nick Mensio of NBC Sports.
The Browns still used Hunt often inside the 20 last season, giving him 29 touches in the red zone, according to Player Profiler. Those numbers would make the six-year pro a favorite for Belichick and Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in scoring situations.
Belichick and O’Brien would also likely appreciate Hunt’s ability to flex out of the backfield and act as a traditional receiver. It’s something he did often during his Chiefs days, but not enough with the Browns for some, including Fantasy Life’s Ian Hartitz.
A versatile backfield receiver used to be a staple of the Patriots’ offense, but the role has fallen out of favor in recent seasons. One of its greatest proponents, James White, believes Ty Montgomery can be the team’s next “sub back,” but the latter’s missed 29 games with various injuries the last three years.
Hunt would give the Patriots a proven and productive “sub back” able to gash defenses in multiple ways. His presence would also leave Stevenson to build on the promise of last season, rather than having to vie for carries with the more decorated Cook.
Patriots Need Support for Rhamondre Stevenson, Not a Replacement
Stevenson enjoyed a breakout campaign by gaining 1,040 yards on 210 carries. The fact Stevenson also made 69 catches only underlined his heavy workload.
Hunt would ease that workload, letting Stevenson focus on being the primary rushing threat. That’s how things worked in Cleveland, where Hunt was the ideal complement to four-time 1,000-yard rusher Nick Chubb.
Stevenson’s status as RB1 would be under threat if Cook arrived at Gillette Stadium. Cook is also a four-time 1,000-yard rusher and one of the NFL’s premier players at his position, who “has more game-breaking ability” than Stevenson, according to The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn.
Florio has a point, but signing Cook likely wouldn’t leave much room for also acquiring DeAndre Hopkins. The latter is arguably a greater need for a team lacking marquee talent at wide receiver, but already boasting a productive running game.
Hunt wouldn’t offer the same game-breaking talents as Cook, but he can still make his share of big plays, like this scoring scamper against the Panthers.
A two-headed rushing tandem of Stevenson and Hunt would preserve the run-first identity of the Patriots’ offense, while also leaving room for a possible late play for Hopkins.