Expect a little bit of 'everything' from Patriots running backs

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FOXBORO — In May, before an organized team activities practice, Ivan Fears said everything will clear up by the regular

FOXBORO — In May, before an organized team activities practice, Ivan Fears said everything will clear up by the regular season on how the Patriots will deploy their deep and talented stable of running backs.

“You’ll see it,” said the assistant coach who has been in charge of Patriots running backs since 2002.

At this point, though, “it” is still hard to see. But, for coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a little element of surprise isn’t a bad thing.

According to former Pats running back Kevin Faulk, who earned a spot in the team Hall of Fame mainly for his prowess on third down, the current crop boasts a versatile skill set.

“I think that every back that they have right now, they believe they can do everything,” he said.

That, Faulk contends, benefits McDaniels.

“He doesn’t have to worry about the play he’s calling,” Faulk said. “He doesn’t have to worry about the guy that’s in the game. Maybe (a back) can’t line up outside to catch a pass. Maybe (a back) can’t motion into the backfield. Maybe (a back) can’t do some of those things. But if you’ve got a guy who can do multiple things and you’re confident that he can do multiple things, there is no hold on your play calling.”

Ultimately, that might be what sets this group apart from previous corps. Last season’s rotation, for the most part, settled on LeGarrette Blount — now with the Philadelphia Eagles — as the between-the-tackles thumper and James White for third downs. Maybe that structure holds again in another form this year, but it’s possible that Belichick simply keeps his options open.

According to Faulk, that’s how Belichick wants it.

“Now, it’s who’s hot right now?” Faulk said. “What’s the guy that’s getting it done for you right now? That’s who (Belichick) is going to go with.”

The coaching staff’s choice in Thursday night’s preseason opener may lend insight to where the Pats go down the line. In that 31-24 loss, the Pats sat three players: Mike Gillislee, who has been battling a hamstring injury since the spring; White, who signed an extension with the team over the offseason following a record-setting Super Bowl LI performance that could have netted MVP honors; and Rex Burkhead, acquired this offseason as an unrestricted free agent after four years with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Barring something unforeseen, those three players appear safe to make the 53-man rostter, but Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster and LeShun Daniels all had their moments against the Jags. Bolden broke off the longest run of the night for the Pats on a 24-yarder in the first quarter. Lewis was his usual elusive self with 32 yards on 4.6 yards per carry to go along with 23 yards receiving. Foster rushed for a touchdown and caught three passes for 33 yards, although he did fumble away one reception in the third quarter. Even Daniels, the longest of long shots to make the roster, broke off a 14-yarder.

Tough decisions loom for Belichick, who can’t keep all of them. Even Bolden, a player whose career has essentially been built as a core special teamer with just spot contributions on offense, would be a tougher cut than most might expect.

“The reason that he’s still there is because of the multiple things he can do,” Faulk said of Bolden. “He can play running back. He can play third-down back. He’s on special teams. So he understands his role. He’s been doing it long enough and understands where he is and what he needs to do to be able to make their roster.

“With that being said, other guys need to understand that, too. His role is defined already. (The question to others from Belichick then must be) ‘Can you define your role for me? Only in a short couple weeks, a few weeks, and I have to determine, all right, I have to pick my guy that has been here for however many years, being consistent doing everything he’s doing. Do I cut him for (a newcomer)?’ ”

Clearly, Lewis has value, as well. Despite having to twice undergo surgery for a 2015 ACL tear, the oft-quoted statistic that the Patriots are 17-0 when he plays, while misleading, isn’t a total coincidence. Arguably the most talented back in the mix, his elusiveness both between the tackles and in space makes Lewis a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball.

Foster, too, is someone the Pats would like to retain. The Arizona State product made the cut last season as an undrafted rookie and was released in November but re-signed to the practice squad just two days later. A healthy scratch for most of the year, he appeared in just three games. Still, Foster has excellent speed and is a picture-perfect candidate to slide into a third-down role down the line.

But such jobs, as Faulk said, aren’t always set in stone. Lewis, who played just seven regular-season games last year after spending the first eight weeks of the 2016 season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list due to the second knee surgery, made a surprise start against in Denver in a 16-3 Week 15 win over the Broncos in which he rushed for 95 yards. In the AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans, Lewis scored three touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving, and one on a kickoff return to become the first player in history to achieve that triple play in a playoff game.

No one saw those performances coming. Right now, the pecking order for this season is also well hidden. Like Fears, though, Faulk feels that will not be the case for long.

“I can tell you this much,” Faulk said, “it will show itself early.”

And with a group that can do a little bit of everything, opponents might still be left in the dark — just how Belichick wants it.

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