FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots selected running back Curtis Martin in the third round of the 1995 draft, they did so assuming some medical risk. Martin, out of Pittsburgh, was coming off a knee injury that concerned some teams.
The Patriots’ risk paid off as Martin went on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career, with the team’s major misstep being letting him get away to the Jets in 1998 as a restricted free agent.
That history is somewhat topical to revisit as the Patriots prepare for the 2016 draft.
Ideally, the club would like to come out of the draft with a high-upside rusher to complement what is already on the roster (specifically Dion Lewis), and a prospect that is arguably the best fit -- Utah’s Devontae Booker -- is coming off a knee injury that made him a medical exclusion at February’s combine.
Booker’s pro day is today and then, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, he has a visit scheduled with the Dolphins and Patriots.
No major surprise there, as it is commonplace for the Patriots to bring in prospects with medical questions before the draft. Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams, who was medically excluded from the combine because of a foot injury, was also in for a visit this week, according to the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe.
Any discussion about the Patriots and the possibility of drafting a running back sparks a hot-button topic: Given the success that teams have had finding running backs later in the draft, is it worth it to invest a high-round pick at the position?
My view is that if the prospect has three- and possibly four-down value, the answer is "yes." Furthermore, we saw what it looked like for the Patriots in the AFC title game when they had little threat in the running game and were one-dimensional, which allowed Denver to tee off on quarterback Tom Brady.
The best way to help Brady in 2016? After addressing receiver and tight end in free agency and the trade market, the Patriots can now balance out the offense with more depth and quality at running back. As ESPN’s Field Yates wrote in his “scout’s notebook” back in 2012, “a running back can be a clock-controlling, first-down achieving weapon with the right tools and line in front of him.”
Booker is one of the few in this year’s draft who qualifies.
At 5-foot-10 3/4 and 219 pounds, he has some of the traits that the Patriots value -- football intelligence, pass-catching skills, good vision and balance, toughness -- and he's a willing blocker and a decisive and explosive rusher. He also has return experience. Overall, he plays faster than his timed speed.
There is one concern, however, as Booker had 16 fumbles in his college career.
So one question the Patriots are likely asking is if that is something they can correct, because no prospect arrives in the NFL as a finished product. Former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who is a strong candidate for the team’s Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, is a good example of a player who had ball-security issues early in his career but overcame them.
With the Patriots scheduled to pick at No. 60/61, it’s possible that Booker won’t even be available. But if he is, he is one prospect I’ve identified in this year’s draft who looks like a solid fit for the team at a position of need.