Anyone who watched the New England Patriots last season undoubtedly saw the lack of consistent production and injury problems that plagued the aging backfield . With backs like Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk all approaching their mid-30s, the Patriots may look to add a player or two (depending upon Faulk re-signing with the team) into the mix.
They still have Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but in the case of Maroney, it’s hard to imagine head coach Bill Belichick having much more patience with his frustrating running style and propensity for fumbling the football. The 25-year-old Maroney is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Green-Ellis is a promising young player who will be well down the depth chart this season, but could still contribute.
That being said, there are several interesting free agent possibilities for the Patriots at running back.
The first of these would have to be ex-Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson, who was released by San Diego this off-season. Tomlinson, 31, represents more of the same from an age perspective, but clearly still has the ability to contribute to an NFL team. While his numbers have been on a steady decline since his MVP campaign of 2006 saw him rush for an eye-popping 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns (1,110 yards and 11 td’s in ’08 and 730 yards and 12 td’s last year), his ability to catch the football out of the backfield – a highly regarded skill in Foxboro – could make him an intriguing addition to the Pats’ running back collective.
The downside of bringing in a guy like LT, of course, is that what you essentially are getting is a once-great player on the back nine of his career, who will still command serious money on the free agent market.
In my mind at least, Tom Brady proved conclusively in 2007 that he doesn’t necessarily require a featured running back to win football games. The fact remains however, that New England hasn’t won a title since Corey Dillon’s 1,600-yard 2004 campaign. Dillon, as you may recall, was acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals prior to the ’04 season as he approached his 30th birthday – an interesting parallel with LT.
Dillon, while never quite the back that Tomlinson was in San Diego, was nonetheless an extremely consistent pro-bowl caliber player, gaining at least 1,100 yards in six of his seven seasons with the Bengals. That is where the similarities end, however. Dillon was able to find success in Foxboro because his running style relied on him running defenders over – something an aging back with nagging injuries can still accomplish. LT, on the other hand, is a finesse back; relying on speed and elusiveness to gain yardage. In other words, the likelihood of Tomlinson seizing the mantle of #1 back in Foxboro – or anywhere else at this point – seems relatively low. The question is this: Do the Patriots want to gamble several million on a guy who is probably no more than a complimentary component at this stage of his career?
One other player who deserves a look, sticking with former (or soon to be) Chargers, is Darren Sproles.
Sproles is 26-years old and was tagged as the Chargers’ franchise player last season, meaning in order for San Diego to sign him to a one-year deal, they would have to pay him %110 of his salary from last season. That would mean the Chargers would be spending about $7.3 million for a player who touched the ball 138 times on offense last year. According to Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, that just isn’t going to happen. Although the Chargers reportedly remain interested in signing Sproles to a long-term contract, they will not offer him a tender, meaning that he will be hitting the open market this off-season.
New England would be adding a young back with ascendant abilities, who may even have the potential to become the focal point of its rushing attack in the near future.
Even if he’s not a number one caliber back, Sproles could certainly add something to the committee rushing approach utilized by New England – not to mention give the Pats a needed boost to the kick return game.
The question with Sproles is how much will he command on the free agent market? If the price isn’t too steep, I think the Patriots would do well to take a shot on a player with a pretty high upside.
all stats used in this article are from ESPN.com