FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Bill Belichick was entering his fifth season as the New England Patriots‘ head coach in 2004, he saw an opportunity many others didn’t and acquired running back Corey Dillon in a trade.
Dillon, who had spent the first seven years of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, was closing in on his 30th birthday that season, and some wondered how much juice he had left. Few teams around the NFL other than the Patriots and Raiders saw great value in trading for him.
Still, Belichick shipped a second-round pick to Cincinnati to land Dillon and said shortly thereafter: “Corey joins Kevin Faulk and our other very good backs to deepen an already competitive running back position.”
Turns out the sometimes-combustible-but-always-hard-charging Dillon did much more than that.
Fueled by his new surroundings, he totaled 345 carries for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first Patriots season. He was a key cog in helping the team capture Super Bowl XXXIX, and his 1,635 rushing yards remains a single-season franchise record.
Like Dillon, Elliott spent the first seven years of his career with the team that drafted him, the Dallas Cowboys. He’s entering the latter years of his career, having turned 28 in July, and some around the NFL are wondering how much he has left after posting a career-low 876 rushing yards in 2022, though he scored 12 touchdowns. Few teams saw great value in signing Elliott, as evidenced by the Patriots being the only team to host him for a visit.
The Patriots aren’t expecting Dillon-type production from the 6-foot, 226-pound Elliott — they have rising third-year pro Rhamondre Stevenson as their top back — but Belichick naturally will have a role in mind for him.
“He’ll do great up there,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “Play-style, alone, I think he’s a really good fit for how they like to play.”
Elliott’s one-year deal with the Patriots includes a $3 million base salary and a $1 million signing bonus that can be worth up to $6 million with incentives, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The modest contract provides a guide of sorts as to what the team envisions as a successful stint for Elliott: spell Stevenson when needed and provide veteran leadership to one of the youngest positions on the roster.
If Elliott does that, it could help prolong his career — whether in New England or elsewhere.
As for his style of play, Elliott has been a productive short-yardage rusher and valued pass-protector, and Belichick has generally preferred sharing the load among running backs, so if Elliott can play 25-30% of the offensive snaps, that might be the ideal scenario.
Last season, Stevenson played 66% of the snaps and accounted for 57% of the team’s rushing yards, which was the highest share by a Patriots running back since 2016 when LeGarrette Blount had 62%.
Blount, of course, is another reminder of Belichick capitalizing on an opportunity to land a running back whose stock wasn’t as high as it once was. The Patriots acquired the bulldozing Blount in a 2013 trade with the Buccaneers for a seventh-round pick, and Blount (772 rushing yards) teamed with Stevan Ridley (773 rushing yards) as a formidable one-two punch that season.
Blount later returned to the team in 2014 after being released by the Steelers and became the Patriots’ clear-cut, productive No. 1 option in 2015 and 2016. Blount had a career-best performance in 2016, rushing for 1,161 yards and leading the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns.
Not that it has always worked out so well for Belichick & Co.
There was hope that longtime Jaguars great Fred Taylor would find the fountain of youth at age 33 after signing with the Patriots in 2009, following 11 seasons in Jacksonville, but he was limited to 269 rushing yards on 63 carries that season and just 155 rushing yards on 43 totes in 2010.
Former Patriots running back James White envisions Elliott avoiding that type of dip in New England.
“Rhamondre Stevenson is going to be the lead guy … but obviously Zeke is a proven veteran,” White said Tuesday on Sirius XM NFL Radio.
“He may not have the 1,500, 1,600 rushing yards like his first few years in the league with that Dallas offensive line, but he can still be a very productive back. It will be huge to have that one-two punch to spell [Rhamondre] and not have that drop-off.”