New England does not have to do much work to return the main components of their running attack in 2005. The question is, are they content to stand pat with Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass?
Their 3.4 yards per carry average ranked 30th in the NFL and they ran for just 94.5 yards per game, down nearly 40 yards from the output they averaged in 2004.
It is unfair and far too simplistic to merely point to Dillon's drop in production as the sole reason for the anemic rushing game. Starting offensive linemen Matt Light and Dan Koppen ended the season on injured reserve, making way for a much younger and inexperienced blocking scheme up front. Rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur were relatively good in pass protection, but their development as run blockers is still in the works.
Running backs often look better than they truly are when playing behind experienced, cohesive offensive lines. Keep in mind that the reverse is also true when it comes to evaluating New England's individual running backs in 2005.
Corey Dillon - 2005 Grade: C-
The Patriots had to know they weren't going to get another 345-carry, 1,635-yard season out of the 31-year-old Dillon as they did in 2004. However, his 3.5 yards per carry average was well below his career mark of 4.3 yards. His 12 touchdowns were right on par with his first season as a Patriot, but his longest carry of the season was just 29 yards.
The Pats' primary ball carrier bristled at the grumbling in training camp that he was on the wrong side of 30 and might need some help with the workload. It turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy for much of the first half of the season, when he got off to a sluggish start. He averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in September.
Dillon hit holes with more authority toward the end of the season after shaking a nagging ankle ailment that held him out of three games. Against Denver in the playoffs, he had a 4.4 yards per carry average for 57 yards before New England was forced to abandon the power running game in the second half.
Dillon signed a five-year, $25 million extension before last season, so he is definitely part of New England's plan going into the 2006 season. But it is clear that he can't carry the rushing offense the same way he did in 2004. The Patriots, like many other teams in the league, are likely to move toward splitting carries amongst Dillon and another back.
Kevin Faulk - 2005 Grade: B-
Faulk, like Dillon, is under contract through the 2009 season, having signed a 6-year, $15 million deal before 2004. But can Faulk carry even half the running back duties for an entire season?
For most of his seven years in the league, the Patriots have used the shifty, undersized Faulk as a change of pace back. He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in 2005 and seems to be best suited as a third-down specialist. At 5'8", 202 lbs., Faulk is at most a five to 10-carry per game back.
Faulk's main value was reinforced when he returned from an eight-week in Week 13 absence due to a broken foot. The Patriots, in the bottom rung of the AFC on third down at that point, improved their third down efficiency to 42.1 percent - eighth best in the NFL - by season's end.
It should be noted that Bill Belichick gave Faulk the start against Denver in the Divisional Playoffs, so the coach feels he has additional value depending on matchups. Then again, his propensity to fumble reared its head against the Broncos as he committed a key turnover when the game was still up for grabs.
Patrick Pass - 2005 Grade: C
With Faulk and Dillon virtual shoe-ins for roster spots, the status of Patrick Pass for 2006 is uncertain. Pass is not a free agent until after next season, but he may be cut should New England be able to upgrade through free agency. In Dillon's absence, Pass filled in with a solid 4.5 yard per carry average and three touchdowns.
Pass's extensive injury history limits his value and he will likely continue to limbo between third on the depth chart and being cut. Should the Patriots sign a purer blocking fullback, Pass will almost surely be gone.
Heath Evans - 2005 Grade: B
Evans started two games for the Patriots in November, but aside from an 85-yard effort against the Dolphins contributed little down the stretch. He figures to be in a similar boat as Pass heading into training camp.
Where do the Patriots go from here?
New England won't be caught off guard in 2006 if Dillon starts off slow again. His 2004 performance may have made his 2005 letdown tougher to see coming. But Dillon is still capable of averaging 4.0 to 4.5 yards a pop. Mankins and Kaczur will only get better as they mature and Light's experience will help shore up some of the run blocking next season.
There could be a couple diamonds in the rough of the free agent crop at running back. But forget about headliners like Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander. The Patriots have too much money tied to Dillon to think about paying the hefty contracts either of those players will fetch.
Jamal Lewis, Deshaun Foster, Ahman Green, Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Najeh Davenport are the next best options available through free agency. The latter three will come the cheapest and have experience splitting carries in the past.
In the draft, the Pats pick 21st in the first round but it would be at least somewhat of a surprise if they took someone like USC's Lendale White or Louisville's Michael Bush. However, the talent at the position is projected to drop off significantly following the first round, so New England might need to strike early if they want a difference maker.
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives.
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