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New England Patriots 2023 Positional Grades: Evaluating the Ground Game

Discover how the Patriots running back unit fared in 2023 with our detailed grading and analysis of the season.

The Patriots 2023 season unfolded like a suspense novel where you can’t skip to the last page to see if it all turns out okay. From the jump, this team clearly had its work cut out for them. They were battling, not just against their opponents, but themselves with mistakes that previous Patriots teams never made. Football, at its core, is a game of strategy and adaptation, and this year, the Patriots seemed to be flipping through the playbook looking for answers that just weren’t there.

New England Patriots 2023 Rushing Report Card

Diving into the Patriots 2023 offense, the rushing attack was the brightest spot. Given that the Patriots finished 25th in both yards per carry and yards per game, that’s more of an insult to the passing game than a compliment to the ground game. Most football fans know that when a team falls behind in a game, they have no choice but to abandon the run. The Patriots found themselves in that exact situation for 91% of the 2023 season – that’s not an exaggeration either. The team held the lead for just 92 out of a possible 1,020 minutes of playtime.

When you’re trailing that often, the playbook narrows, and the run game typically gets shoved to the back burner in favor of aerial assaults aimed at quick scores. But for the Patriots, a shaky offensive line and inconsistent quarterbacking often meant those plans were more wishful thinking than a reliable strategy. It’s hard to imagine any running back being able to produce in that situation.

Rhamondre Stevenson: B-

Rhamondre Stevenson’s season definitely didn’t kick off with any fireworks, unable to crack the 60-yard mark until week nine. But pinning the blame solely on him wouldn’t be fair; the Patriots poor play and limited time of possession this season had them ranked 26th in rush attempts. Despite the stats not doing justice to his effort on the field, Stevenson never lost his drive. He’s the kind of player who’ll always push harder, fighting for those extra yards with every run, and this season was no exception.

Behind a struggling offensive line that’s likely going to go through an overhaul this offseason, Stevenson faced an uphill battle. He ended his 2023 campaign with career lows in touchdowns and yards per carry, despite setting a career high in carries per game. There were plenty of opportunities to showcase his ability to make the first guy miss in open space — even if many of those came behind the line of scrimmage – and he often did so. His toughness was great to see, but we missed the burst of speed that turns a solid run into a game-changing play. The type of thing that we see out of the top backs in the NFL. When he did find space, his ability to read the field was on point, showing good vision all year. He just seemed to lack that explosiveness.

Stevenson’s got the toolkit to be a lead NFL back, no question. Yet, with another injury on his record, it’s hard not to worry a bit about his future. He can do it all – from grinding out tough yards to picking up blitzes and occasionally catching out of the backfield. Still, there’s a gap between being really good at a lot of things and being a standout star at any of them.

Ezekiel Elliott: B

The gap between Ezekiel Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson isn’t all that large. In all honesty, Stevenson had the better statistical year by just about every measure; but the stats don’t tell the whole story. Elliott came to the Patriots knowing he wasn’t going to be the feature back, likely for the first time in his NFL career. Elliott had his fair share of doubters when he signed with New England. They didn’t last for very long as the Patriot running back worked relentlessly through the season, being one of the most consistent players on the Patriots offense.

Finishing the year with his most receptions since 2020, Elliott came in and showed that he was willing to do whatever the team needed him to do. Taking over the role of “third-down back” without a traditional one on the roster, (what happened to Ty Montgomery?) he was able to show his versatility while lightening the load for Stevenson.

When Elliott was forced into the starting spot due to Stevenson getting injured in a week 11 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, he did a decent job while carrying virtually all of the rushing workload. Getting ready to test his luck in free agency again, the Patriots should absolutely consider bringing Elliott back. If nothing else, his strong veteran presence would be great to have around a rebuilding and transforming locker room.

Elevating the Patriots Backfield

The Patriots have a solid base to build on with Stevenson under contract for 2024. If they’re able to bring Elliott back, having a similar style back to keep Stevenson’s legs fresh would be a great advantage. With that being said, they’re still missing a key piece to a truly successful run game: explosiveness. The Patriots had hoped that Ty Montgomery would be able to fill that role, but a bit of a struggle returning kick-offs seemed to spiral into a lack of opportunities. He finished the season with just three rushes and five catches on 12 targets.

Luckily, this offseason has a fair amount of running backs entering free agency, so the Patriots will have an opportunity to bring in more speed at the position. There are plenty of big names like AJ Dillon, Austin Ekeler, Tony Pollard, and Saquon Barkley getting ready to hit the open market and the Patriots have the cap space to go after any one of them.

Running back is far from the Patriots biggest need though, and it would be pretty shocking if the team invested heavily in the position with Stevenson on the roster. They’re likely keeping an eye on other names like Jerick McKinnon, Chase Edmunds, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Cam Akers to be able to come in and complement the talent they already have in the room. The draft is another place that the Patriots will be looking to add some depth to the position. This draft class has some unrefined raw talent that can be found in the later rounds. Using a day-two or three picks to add some depth in hopes they can develop into more is a strategy that has played out well for many other NFL front offices.

Framework for the Future

Though Stevenson and Elliott have proven that they’re more than capable of shouldering the Patriots running game, there’s a clear sense that dynamism is the missing link to elevate the ground game to greater heights. They have a great foundation, but it’s the spark of explosive playmaking that could transform a dependable backfield into one of the best in the league. With a bolstered offensive line and a revitalized passing game, the Patriots running backs should find themselves in a position to shoulder less of the workload, but be able to produce more when their number is called. With Elliott Wolf reportedly in control of the 53-man roster, along with heavy input from head coach Jerod Mayo, no one really knows what the Patriots plan of attack is. One thing’s for sure: the anticipation for what’s next has never been higher.

Main Photo: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports


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