Judging by the looks of the Patriots' current depth chart, 2023 is shaping up to be Rhamondre Stevenson's year.
Without a clear-cut second option behind him, Stevenson will need to shoulder a majority of the backfield load in his third NFL season. A former Patriot believes, however, that it might not be as one-sided as it appears.
"It almost reminds me of before I got to the Patriots when they had Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen [in the early 2010s], and Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk and others were gone," former Patriots runner James White said, via ESPN. "Back then it was like, 'This is your backfield now.' I feel like that's the transition there now."
White arrived to New England in 2014, and in the two prior seasons, Ridley led the Patriots in rushing, but the statistical totals looked vastly different. In 2012, Ridley was the bell cow, handling 290 carries for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. A year later, the distribution was nearly even, with Ridley finishing with just 25 more carries than LeGarrette Blount and one more rushing yard than Blount.
Last season, Stevenson broke 200 carries and 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his NFL career, scoring five touchdowns for a second straight season and confirming he could be a reliable runner for Bill Belichick's squad.
"It's not so often as a Patriots running back that you're out there that many snaps," White said of Stevenson, who played 66% of the snaps at running back in 2022. "Bill loves that guy, so he just has to capitalize on the opportunity."
The range of possible outcomes is wide in 2023. But the key difference between those Patriots and the 2023 edition is the existence of a second (or third) back with substantial experience.
New England returns a group headlined by Stevenson, who quickly drew comparisons to Blount during his rookie season. The rest of the room, however, is green, save for veteran Ty Montgomery, who has bounced around five teams in his eight-year NFL career.
It's a far cry from a Patriots backfield that included Vereen, Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead in 2012, and replaced Woodhead with Blount in 2013. And although Stevenson led the Patriots in carries last season, it pales in comparison to the massive workload shouldered by the likes of Corey Dillon, who carried the ball 345 times in 2004, or Blount (299 carries in 2016).
Judging by the difference in distribution between 2012 and 2013, White might be onto something. The Patriots could be holding out hope that one of their younger backs is ready to take on a larger role, especially in sub packages on passing downs.
With pass-catching experience gained from his days spent as a receiver, Montgomery could fill a need on passing downs in 2023, even at 30 years old. The same could be said about Pierre Strong and J.J. Taylor, though neither has a significant history of catching passes in the NFL.
"I see a bunch of talented young guys and then a savvy veteran in Ty, if he can stay healthy, to kind of lead those guys along," White said. "Being around him a little bit last year, in OTAs and training camp, (Ty is) a guy who feels like he is still trying to prove himself and feels he has a lot left in the tank … he just hasn't quite had a true opportunity.
"With Bill O'Brien coming back, they'll probably get back to having a sub back, and I feel like he'll be the guy to take that on if they don't have Rhamondre take on the full load."
Stevenson carried much of the load in 2022, seeing 279 total touches. Belichick could lean on Stevenson just as much in 2023, but based on his history, it's unlikely. Perhaps there's room to make an addition at running back, especially with a handful of talented veterans available in an unusually deflated market.
For now, this is the group. But as White said, anything is possible for a Patriots offense that expects to be better than it was in 2022 -- and might need Stevenson a whole lot to achieve that goal in 2023.