During a week in which the Patriots visited the White House to celebrate another Super Bowl win and also come to grips with the suicide death of Tight-End-Turned-Killer-Aaron-Hernandez, probably few are paying attention to what’s taking place with the New England running back corps.
While the Patriots have had a great offseason, and will undoubtedly emerge as Vegas’ odds-on favorite to win yet another Lombardi Trophy, the team’s strategy at RB has been interesting, to say the least.
New England signed Buffalo backup Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet and extended Super Bowl hero (he should have been the MVP) James White. These moves come on top of signing Bengals backup Rex Burkhead and entertaining soon-to-be-former Vikings great Adrian Peterson. That leaves the futures of big back LeGarrette Blount, coming off an 18-touchdown season, and Dion Lewis, coming off a partial season where he looked solid following an ACL recovery, up in the air.
So, what does Bill Belichick have in mind?
Andy: First off, let me say this: In Belichick I trust. I don’t know what he has in mind, but he’s one of the few coaches in the league with the pedigree where I will trust what otherwise would seem as a reach. That said … some of these moves are interesting, to say the least.
Blount left once before, then pouted his way out of Pittsburgh to return. He seems like a perfect fit in New England, where he has averaged 4.0 yards per carry over the last two seasons and scored 25 TDs, including 18 during 2016.
But he’s also 30 and nobody likes to get rid of aging players a year too early rather than a year too late as much as Belichick. And Gillislee, a stout 208 pound ack at 26-years-of-age, averaged better than 5 yards per carry in Buffalo while backing up LeSean McCoy.
The fascination with Burkhead is an interesting one. He wasn’t given much of an opportunity to show much in Cincinnati, and with Lewis and White in the fold, it’s a bit less clear what role he may play. But again, at this point, in Belichick we trust.
John: Yeah, this is typical Belichick. While the rest of the league is devaluing the running back position, he’s going all in.
That Pats have signed three running backs–White, Gillislee and Burkhead–to contracts worth a total of $21.55 million this offseason. All three of them will rank among the NFL’s top 24 highest-paid RBs.
We saw what White could do in the Super Bowl, and both Gillislee and Burkhead have looked fantastic in limited action elsewhere. And, most importantly, they’re all versatile chess pieces that Belichick can deploy in different ways. They can run the ball, they can catch the ball, and they can block. They’re good football players.
Perhaps Belichick is going all in on advanced stats. Gillislee and Burkhead ranked as the two most efficient backs in the league last year, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric.
The biggest question is how he plans to use them. My best guess is that Gillislee will fill Blount’s role, while White is mainly used as a receiver out of the backfield. Burkhead will do a mix of both. Lewis can too, though he suddenly seems like the odd man out, especially given his injury history.
It’s going to be an even more frustrating than usual situation for fantasy football owners. And I’ll bet it’s going to be awfully frustrating for opposing defenses, too.
Andy: Let’s put the brakes on a little bit before casting Lewis aside and getting too excited about Burkhead or Gillislee. They may have been efficient last year, but they also were backups. Burkhead played some toward the end of the season because Gio Bernard got hurt and Jeremy Hill looked like the second coming of, I don’t know, Ron Dayne?
And Gillislee’s role was fill-in for LeSean McCoy, who also enjoyed a renaissance season in 2016.
Neither of these guys would be the first RBs to get thrust into a more prominent role after succeeding as a complementary or backup back and fail when the role increased. The name Rashad Jennings comes to mind.
All of which makes me curious about why Lewis may have fallen out of favor. Pro-rate the seven games he played in 2015 out over a full season and you’re talking 82 catches, more than 1,400 combined rushing and receiving yards and nine TDs – a very solid contribution. His numbers decreased, understandably, in 2016 while still recovering from injury and losing some time to James White, but a pro-rated season still would have amounted to a solid contribution.
But at day’s end, it comes back to Belichick. Maybe he sees something indicating Lewis won’t make it all the way back. Maybe he’s sending a message. Maybe he thinks Burkhead and Gillislee are simply the next under tapped talents to be unearthed by his keen eye (See Welker, Wes). I’m not 100 percent sold on making those changes, but if anyone is going to make them and get them right, more often than not, it’s Belichick.
John: Yeah, you can go one of two ways with this. Either Burkhead and Gillislee are ultra-efficient, underutilized backs who just need an increased opportunity to showcase what they’re capable of or they’re guys who look really good on paper thanks to small sample sizes. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
That said, I think their traits play well to the Patriots’ offense. Gillislee is a younger Blount (and smaller version) of Blount who has been stellar in short-yardage situations, including at the goal line. Blount piled up 18 TDs last year despite being inefficient in those situations. Burkhead, meanwhile, is a strong route-runner who could line up out wide in certain formations, and he actually looked pretty solid between the tackles when called upon.
I’m certainly not writing off Lewis. I’ve been a huge fan. But he has a long list of injuries, and he seemed to clearly fall behind White on the depth chart down the stretch last year. And I’m sure Belichick didn’t sign Gillislee and Burkhead to ride the pine. It’s just hard to envision Lewis ever regaining his early 2015 form with this crowded cast.
Either way, I can’t wait to see what Belichick and Josh McDaniels have up their sleeves. They helped rejuvenate the tight end position by turning guys like Rob Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez into dangerous weapons. And, outside of the brief Randy Moss era, they have turned scrappy, undersized wide receivers like Welker and Julian Edelman into top pass catchers in a league infatuated with big receivers like Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones. We’ve seen glimpses of what Belichick and McDaniels can do with versatile backs, and I think we’re about to see them take that approach to the next level.
Andy: No question about it – the Patriots are amazing. As much as I want to be bored with and done with New England, this team unlike any other has figured out how to work the system. They may push it too far sometimes, but so it goes. This team just won its fifth Super Bowl and the 2017 version is, in my eyes, already a couple notches better than the team that just took home the Lombardi. In this era of the NFL it is an amazing story.