Patriots' LeGarrette Blount one of best values in NFL history

LeGarrette Blount owns the 1-yard line (1:09)

LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns this year, largely because of his dominance from close range. He scored 11 times on 1-yard rushes - more rushing touchdowns than 11 NFL teams had from any distance. Take a look inside the numbers. (1:09)

In April 2016, LeGarrette Blount was 29 years old. That made him ancient for an NFL running back. He was still recovering from a hip injury that ended his 2015 season. Nearly six weeks of NFL free agency had passed. League interest in his services was minimal.

So Blount returned to the New England Patriots on a one-year contract, accepting the non-guaranteed veteran's minimum of $760,000 as his base salary. The Patriots threw in a $100,000 signing bonus, a $40,000 workout bonus and a roster bonus that would pay him $6,250 for every week he was on their game-day roster.

In all, Blount could max out at $1 million in 2016, a ceiling that would make him no better than the league's 46th-highest-paid running back, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. His career season under those terms makes Blount arguably the best veteran value in the NFL this season and one of the best in the league's modern history.

Blount played in all 16 games for only the second time in his career and remains healthy as the top-seeded Patriots prepare for the Houston Texans this week. He led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns after taking a career-high 299 carries for 1,161 yards, along the way helping the Patriots balance their offense: They rank No. 7 in rushing yards and No. 4 in passing.

Remember, the NFL has two stages of contracts. Rookies are locked into prenegotiated salary slots for at least their first three seasons. Most don't receive a second contract until after their fourth season, if at all. By definition, then, the best player values are almost always produced by young players on their rookie deals.

So I'm not considering the Russell Wilsons (pre-2015), Dak Prescotts or even Ezekiel Elliotts in this discussion. Neither they nor their teams had much leeway in their salaries.

Veteran value refers to players signed to free-agent contracts, subject to negotiation, projection and skill assessment. We hear plenty about free-agent busts. Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who earned $21 million this season and has $16 million fully guaranteed for 2017, is the most recent example. We occasionally celebrate high-priced veterans who provide equitable return, such as the dominant Kelechi Osemele -- whom the Oakland Raiders made the NFL's richest guard ($12.7 million in 2016 and another $12.7 million in 2017).

But we rarely notice the value provided by a lower-paid veteran.

Of the 45 running backs who earned more in 2016 than Blount, six were veterans who like Blount signed one-year contracts.

The list includes:

That group combined for 677 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns this season.

You aren't going to find a veteran free agent who provided a similar ratio of production to earnings this season. So the natural question becomes: Has there ever been one?

Comparing dollars from different eras is tricky, as is attempting to equate production from various positions. I reached out to some people I trust with deep knowledge of NFL contract negotiations over time, and none of them could agree on someone who provided demonstrably more value than Blount this season.

Former running back Priest Holmes' name surfaced in a few conversations. Holmes signed a relatively cheap contract to move from the Baltimore Ravens to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001. But even then, his salary as he finished off a run of three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons was reported to be $2.5 million.

Another instance to consider is the Patriots' contract with receiver Randy Moss in 2007. Having acquired him after two career-killing years with the Raiders, the Patriots signed Moss to a one-year deal worth $3 million. Moss, of course, went on to have the best season of his career. As the NFL's 40th-highest-paid receiver that year, he caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and a league-record 23 touchdowns.

A deep search through ESPN data identified some veteran quarterbacks who performed well at low salaries. A quarterback, of course, is by nature a more valuable position. And even then, their salaries were typically more than what Blount earned this season when you adjust for salary cap inflation.

Trent Dilfer, for example, signed with the Ravens in 2000 for a backup salary of $1 million. He started eight games as the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. But his contract was negotiated at a time when the salary cap was $62.1 million. It's now 150 percent higher at $155.27 million.

ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt, a former agent and vice president of the Green Bay Packers, suggested an alternative. Brandt doesn't think Blount should be considered the best value on his team, let alone in recent league history. That title, Brandt said, should go to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady -- who has provided another MVP-caliber year at a hometown discount salary that averages $14.4 million per year between 2015 and '18. Conservatively, Brady would get at least 40 percent more than that on the open market.

But you get the point. There isn't much precedent, if any, for what Blount has provided the Patriots this season. He has produced the best season of his career, and one of the most important in the NFL this season, at nearly the lowest rate his team could have paid him.