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After years of featuring shifty pass-catching backs like Shane Vereen, Rex Burkhead, and James White to complement Tom Brady’s quick passing attacks, the New England Patriots appear to be trending in a new direction post-Brady: pound the rock.
New England could be gearing up for another run at bully ball in 2021 — one of the few things that worked well for them offensively last season.
The team already has established runners in Damien Harris, Sony Michel, and quarterback Cam Newton (assuming he plays much this year). But one big name to watch in the currently crowded running back room is fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson.
The rookie averaged 7.2 yards a tote on just 165 career carries and scored 13 touchdowns in his two college years, establishing himself as the focal point of the Sooners offensive attack.
He’s not going to come in and immediately get “bell cow”-type carries for the Patriots. There are several talented runners above him on the depth chart, and he also needs to show he can be trusted on passing downs.
But his skill set is such that he both stands a good chance of making the 53-man roster and seeing some early touches for the Patriots’ ground-and-pound game.
Stevenson’s toughness and aggression as a runner are among his biggest selling points. He’ll rarely run out of bounds willingly and is only too happy to seek contact and fight for extra yards.
Take him head-on, and he’ll bounce right off of you or take you for a ride. Come at him from an angle, and you’re liable to catch a stiff arm to the jaw you won’t forget.
But Stevenson is more than just a bowling ball. He also is capable of running with patience, allowing blocks to set up and holes to fully open before charging through the breach.
At times, Stevenson does leave yards on the field by bouncing runs outside too quickly rather than staying the course and getting north and south. He’s best as a one-cut, downhill runner, but he’ll abandon those instincts if there’s quick penetration into the backfield.
Oklahoma State did a good job of putting bodies in the backfield and pushing him toward the sideline early in their matchup last year. But they couldn’t keep Stevenson down forever: he finished the game with 141 yards on 26 carries.
Eventually, as with his idol LaGarrette Blount, a hard-charging Stevenson to close out a football game is something defenses simply don’t want any part of.
But he’s also more than a bulldozer with legs.
His straight-line speed won’t wow anyone (though a 4.64 40-yard dash isn’t bad for a running back weighing in at more than 230 pounds.) So don’t expect him to run away from NFL defensive backs.
But you also shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking he’s “slow.” Stevenson possesses excellent burst for a back his size. Once he finds his lane to get downhill, he hits it with surprising acceleration.
Here, he blows by a linebacker at the second level who has an angle en route to a big gain.
His tape is full of runs like this — tacklers that arrive a half-step late flailing at the air as he surges past them through a hole or lulls them to sleep before blasting around the edge.
While everyone salivates over home run-hitting speed out of the backfield, short-area quickness is a more important trait for a running back on an every-play basis. Stevenson has more than enough of that.
Harris showed last year that you don’t need to run a 4.2 40 to rip off big runs on a regular basis. Perhaps the Patriots’ newest running back can do the same.
Stevenson’s pure running ability will get him a touch or two here and there. But producing good snaps on passing downs is the key to him carving out a real role in the Patriots offense.
Most importantly, he’ll need to stick his nose in to protect his quarterback.
The tape shows a willing blocker on passing downs with the physicality to be stout in blitz pickup. He’s not shy about bringing his pads with him against oncoming rushes and is hard to overwhelm with a bullrush when he has his legs under him.
That said, he needs additional coaching and reps to refine his technique as a pass-blocker.
Though Stevenson manages to keep his quarterback clean against this safety blitz by Texas Tech, he makes the mistake of lunging at his target rather than staying square and using his arms to engage. The blitzer bounces off his glancing blow and nearly gets the sack.
Stevenson does recover to allow his quarterback to extend the play, but he’s proven capable of much better reps than that one. Case in point: he stays much more disciplined and balanced on a similar blitz against Oklahoma State.
The area with the most untapped potential for Stevenson might be his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
He caught just 28 passes for 298 yards in his two years as a starting running back with Oklahoma. But 211 of those receiving yards came last year despite him catching just eight more passes in 2020 than in 2019.
He’s no James White and may not have the ability to run refined routes out of the backfield yet, but he’s dangerous on screens and swings into the flat when given space to run.
Look for the Patriots to explore what Stevenson can do as a receiver during early practices and training camp as he fights for his chance to make the roster. Having White to learn from would be especially helpful.
If Stevenson is the runner his college tape says he is, he might already be on the road to overtaking Michel for carries. But he also prides himself on his special teams contributions, covering kicks frequently in college. That factor more than anything will put him in a good position for surviving final cuts this fall.
The “battering-ram” rookie might not be the flashiest runner the Patriots could have added to their running back room. But given what New England appears to be preparing to do offensively, Stevenson’s fit with the Patriots couldn’t be better.
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