New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles
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It's the end of an era in the Patriots backfield after veteran running back James White announced his retirement last week. His departure does bring with it an opportunity for those currently on New England's roster to ascend to become the primary passing down back, which has proven to be a key piece within the Patriots offense. Even before White's announcement and as he was rehabbing from a season-ending hip injury, one candidate to take over that role was second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson

Earlier in camp, Stevenson said that he had spent the offseason working on becoming a better pass-catcher out of the backfield, running crisp routes, and improving in pass protection. He also came into camp much leaner than he was a season ago and weighed in at 225 pounds. 

That work this offseason has seemingly translated to the field during training camp as Stevenson has garnered some praise from Bill Belichick. 

"Mondre's done a really good job improving his pass game skills, starting with blitz pickup and protection," the head coach told reporters prior to New England's joint practice with the Panthers. "Route running – he's got good hands, catching the ball's never really been an issue. It's setting up defenders, recognizing coverages, when to sit down, when to break, depending on what the rest of the pattern is, how to maximize the distribution on the pattern. 

"The back's always kind of the last person in the pattern for flare control. So, whatever the rest of the players are running, the back is generally responsible for filling in – being in the right spot so the quarterback has an outlet." 

Rhamondre Stevenson
NE • RB • 38
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Of course, in-depth knowledge of the back's route tree, picking up the rush and knowing when to release is required to be successful in this offense. That's an area Belichick sees dramatic improvement from Stevenson. 

"A lot of times the backs, even their release through or around the line of scrimmage – depending on what's going on with the rush – can be quite different from play to play. Even on the same basic route that they're supposed to be running. So, it's much different than the receivers and the tight ends. But he's done a good job of, again, gaining experience and all that. 

"He's way better than he was last year and he understands that's an important part of his game. It's not just carrying the ball, it's all things that go with the passing game. So, he's done a great job." 

If Stevenson can secure this job, it's a heck of an opportunity to flash his versatility as a dual-threat back. While Stevenson did see some work as a pass catcher last year (14 receptions on 18 targets), it was Brandon Bolden who saw most of the workload with White sidelined. With Bolden now in Las Vegas, Stevenson's main competition for these targets could be Ty Montgomery, who has also put together an impressive camp.

Last season, the Patriots targeted players out of the backfield (running back and fullbacks) 111 times.