Sony Michel played a big role for the Patriots in the playoffs, rushing for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three postseason games. Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

FOXBORO, Mass. — With Tom Brady crossing into the land of 40-something two years ago, the offense has gone a little more run-heavy to try and help preserve the legend, and also adopt the best avenue toward winning.

Along with the cornerbacks and linebackers, the running-back group is pretty stacked. Whether running or catching passes out of the backfield, the backs have become a pivotal and necessary part of the offense.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels claims the coaches won’t know how the offense shakes out until they put all the pieces together and see what works, but given the success during the playoffs, pounding the football behind a terrific offensive line likely will be part of the formula again.

“If you can establish a run and impose your will on a defense, it’s a great feeling,” said fullback James Develin, who got to know the feeling well in the playoffs. “It’s a good strategy but we let the coaches handle that. They call the plays, and we just try and go out there and execute them.”

Last year the Pats drafted University of Georgia standout Sony Michel in the first round. He played a key role in the postseason, with 336 rushing yards and six scores in three games.

Michel again will be counted on to carry the ball but has had knee woes dating back to college. He needed a clean-out procedure after the season, so the team has moved cautiously with him.

The good news is Michel has looked good running the football and making cuts after coming off the physically unable to perform list this past week. He’s also been working more on catching balls out of the backfield, so his role could expand.

Unlike last year, when the Pats faced a shortage with their lead backs, with both Michel and Rex Burkhead sidelined early, they have more depth.

Damien Harris, a 2019 third-round pick who played for Nick Saban at Alabama, has shown well in camp and looks like he’ll contribute. He’s known for busting plays right up the gut, between the tackles. With his ability to catch the football, he’ll push Michel for starter reps.

With Harris providing added depth, there shouldn’t be a need to employ a wide receiver in the backfield on the early downs, as they were forced to do with Cordarelle Patterson last year.

James White is one of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s most trusted targets. Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Veterans James White and Burkhead are the primary pass-catching backs. White is the quintessential third-down back and one of Brady’s most trusted targets, and Burkhead is a bit more of a two-way threat with his ability to run the ball.

Core special teamer Brandon Bolden, meanwhile, returns to the group. He can carry in a pinch, while Brady also enjoys a connection with him as a pass-catcher.

It’s possible someone from this unit becomes expendable, but with the Patriots’ heavier reliance on the run game, and Michel’s cranky knees, it wouldn’t be a surprise if all five are kept along with Develin, the jackhammer who typically creates a path with a lead block.

The variety of skill sets is also a benefit.

“That’s the beauty of our (group). We can provide a plethora of different things. We all run different, we play different, we all bring something different to the table,” said Bolden. “But when it comes down to it, we’re still running backs at the end of the day.”

On Friday, Brady spent considerable time with the backs, throwing passes to them on every possible route. Most have the ability to line up anywhere, which makes them dangerous.

“We have a good group of guys. Everybody can run, catch, block. We’re competing with one another, making each other better,” said White. “We know we’re not all going to be out there for each and every play, so we’ll find our roles and make the most of our opportunities.”

Harris, the rookie is the new kid in the group, and the veteran Bolden returns after a year in Miami. Even though the backs have had some difficulty down by the goal line in camp, they plan on getting better.

“In my seven years here, we’ve had some great backs playing here. This is just the beginning,” said Bolden. “This room is going to have to make a mark on its own to do what we’re going to do in the end, but right now we’re starting off close. We’re a tight-knit group, everyone has come in and is following suit, including me.”

Bolden has gotten a fair share of carries, and caught a number of passes from Brady already. During the season he’s more like an emergency back who can fill in on a moment’s notice. His primary role is special teams, but Bolden always has to be prepared. So he’ll spend considerable time with the offense during training camp, and with the backs in their meetings.

The veteran really likes the vibe in the running-back room.

“It’s like iron sharpens iron,” he said. “We all push each other, we all want each other to succeed. We all want each other to be better.”

Under that umbrella, the backs still have a little fun. They have private competitions to help keep things interesting.

“Yeah, we still go out there and we’ll still have our little – ‘I did this faster than you, I did this better than you’ – we still compete against each other. But smartly. We don’t push each other too far.”

Said Develin: “There’s just a natural competitive spirit between all of us. Whether it’s practice, games, we always compete with each other, and try and make each other better … We vibe very well and work very well together.”


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