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Backfield Battles -- New England and L.A. Rams

New England Patriots

One of the biggest stories of the week was Sony Michel getting shipped off to L.A. to form a tandem with Darrell Henderson. Upon first impression, the Patriots’ notoriously dispersed backfield seems consolidated. I caution against jumping to the conclusion that Damien Harris will step into a workhorse role.

Harris continues to be the lead back on early downs. He is a reliable, consistent NFL runner, who will pick up what is blocked without much additional flair. James White is entrenched as the passing-down back, which could pay dividends if Mac Jones is named the starter, given the rookie’s propensity for throwing checkdowns so far this preseason.

But both 2021 fifth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson and 2020 undrafted free agent J.J. Taylor have made enough noise to warrant regular season involvement. Stevenson slimmed down from his days at Oklahoma and has been rewarded with increased quickness and fluidity without sacrificing any power. He is getting the goal line looks with the second-team and has been extraordinarily effective in that role. If Jones starts at QB – eliminating Cam Newton’s hawking of goal line rushing TDs – Stevenson becomes a dark-horse candidate for double-digit rushing TDs. Anyone remember LeGarrette Blount’s 18-touchdown season in 2016?

Taylor is the ultimate underdog. The former UDFA is 5’5”, 185 pounds, and ran 4.6-forty yard dash. But boy is he dynamic. He processes the field quickly, has great balance, quickness, and elusiveness and is an extremely efficient decision-maker between the tackles.

Factoring in consistency in scheme-execution – a big deal on a Belichick team – Taylor was the best runner on the field last week. While he is going to have to scratch and claw for real opportunity, expect J.J. to find his way onto the field just enough to cap every else’s upside. His versatile talent, lack of name recognition, sub-par measurables and absent draft capital make him an excellent deep dynasty stash.

Takeaway: This backfield is going to get murky. Damien Harris is going to see his ADP climb after the Michel trade, but the film tells me this is probably more about Stevenson and Taylor earning real roles. If Cam Newton starts most of the season, I’m avoiding all of these backs. If Jones wins the job, White and Stevenson both yield strong returns on their current ADPs.

Los Angeles Rams

The other side of the coin involves Michel’s arrival in the house of McVay. Darrell Henderson’s mild thumb sprain was enough to scare Les Snead into trading real draft capital – likely a 2022 4th round compensatory pick – for the steady grinder. While people are sounding the alarm on Henderson, a shared backfield was inevitable based on 2020 usage with Cam Akers hurt, and McVay’s comments about wanting to keep Henderson healthy. This move tells me they do not have faith in Xavier Jones or Jake Funk to deploy them as significant contributors in the case of a Henderson injury. Remember, Darrell is not playing a snap this preseason, and it is not because McVay thinks he stinks. In fact, he showed tremendous growth as a zone runner in 2020.

Henderson will get substantial touches in an efficient Rams offense -- I’m projecting his carry-share to dip to 45% from 50%. I expect Michel, who joins late in the pre-season and still needs to learn the entire offense, to earn just under 35% of L.A.’s rushes.

Takeaway: Anyone dropping Henderson significantly after the Michel addition was too optimistic for his usage to begin with. Buy the dip. Football is not plug-and-play, and Sony Michel has to be integrated into the scheme from square one -- New England's offensive scheme is not in the same family as McVay's. I expect Henderson to lead the backfield in touches and efficiency, and that makes him a low-end RB2 in an upgraded McVay offense with Matt Stafford in town. Michel is now a low-end RB3, with excellent upside if Henderson misses time.

New York Jets Update

I touched on this backfield last week. But with Tevin Coleman active, we saw a 1-2 punch with him and Ty Johnson splitting first-team reps. Michael Carter was relegated to playing with the back-ups. Despite Johnson’s annual training camp buzz, he displayed the subtle deficiencies that have always prevented him from being a consistent rotational back in the NFL.

Coleman looks like a shell of his prime self, running with little explosion or agility. As a player who has never been an elite craftsman, his physical decline is going to limit his ability to be an effective ball carrier. For what it’s worth, Carter was by far the most effective back in running with the twos, breaking tackles and showing off the balance and footwork that made him so good at North Carolina.

Takeaway: Johnson and Coleman may begin the season as starters, but I am not buying them long-term. Carter is the best runner on the team, the only question is how long it will take LaFleur to realize it.


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