The State of the New England Patriots’ Backfield

When you think of the New England Patriots, who’s the first person to come to mind? LeGarrette Blount? No. James White? Probably not. The name you are probably thinking of is quarterback, Tom Brady. You normally don’t think of the backfield when talking about the Patriots, but the Patriots backfield is probably the most talented and well-rounded group of running backs in some time. With the departure of Blount, who led the league with nineteen rushing touchdowns, the Patriots backfield now has a big hole to fill.

The Patriots running back situation has been talked about quite a bit during this offseason, so I’m not going to try and create hot takes just for the sake of creating hot takes. This offseason, the Patriots added two running backs to their already talented backfield: power runner Mike Gillislee, from Buffalo, and specialist Rex Burkhead, from Cincinnati. The real questions that need to be answered before this season are: is Gillislee the replacement for Blount? What will Lewis and White’s production look like in 2017? How will Burkhead fit into this offense?

For a wider perspective of the Patriots offense, I recommend checking out Frank Pimentel’s article on the Patriots receiving corps.

The Newcomers & Mainstays

Gillislie and Burkhead join pass-catchers James White and Dion Lewis along with fullback James Develin and special-teamers/ running backs Brandon Bolden & D.J. Foster. It is yet to be seen if all of these guys will be around come the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but with Dion Lewis most likely not getting the boot despite early rumors, the only one who seems to be in danger of not making the roster seems to be Bolden, as highlighted by ESPN’s Mike Reiss.

Last season, the Patriots finished 4th in the league in terms of rush attempts. This may come as somewhat of a surprise seeing that the Patriots aren’t a team truly known for running the ball (although, in today’s NFL, that shouldn’t surprise anyone). LeGarrette Blount led the way among all Patriots backs with 299 rushing attempts out of 527 total plays run (47% of snaps). Blount set personal highs in rushing attempts, yardage, and touchdowns and was the Patriots’ workhorse back.

Mike Gillislie, the man who is supposed to be the replacement for Blount, is no slouch despite being LeSean McCoy’s backup with the Bills. Gillislie has averaged 5.7 yards/attempt over the last two seasons, in spite of the fact that he saw an uptick in usage from 2015 to 2016 (47 attempts to 101 attempts). The consistency early in his career will serve him well come September.

The only thing that remains to be seen is if he can maintain his efficiency as a potential starter with the Pats. With the Bills, he was only on the field for 27% of the team’s snaps. Blount, however, was on the field for nearly double the number of snaps and Gillislee is supposed to be his replacement. If Gillislee is the true replacement for Blount, then the bruising back will wind up in the end zone quite a bit this season.

The one mystery piece among the running backs is Rex Burkhead. Burkhead has been a complimentary piece in Cincinnati for the past couple of seasons behind Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill, with most of his work coming this past season. Burkhead can be described as one of Bill Belichick’s prototypical players in the sense that he is a bulkier back who can also pass-catch and play special teams. He is a hybrid player between Gillislee because of his size and the two returning pass-catching backs: James White and Dion Lewis.

James White & Dion Lewis, although not the exact same type of player, both will retain their role as the pass catching backs. James White will most likely be the lead passing back with Lewis retaining his role as the change-of-pace back. White provides the most versatility among the two with his ability to run efficiently (4.3 yards/attempt) and is miles better than Lewis as a pass-catching back (60 receptions, 551 yards).

The Extras

Along with White, Lewis, Gillislee, and Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and James Develin round out the running back core. Personally, I think Develin provides the Patriots’ halfbacks the best opportunities to run for extra yardage when the offense lines up in two-back sets as opposed to single back sets; although combining White and Lewis or even White/Lewis with Burkhead would certainly confuse the heck out of opposing defenses.

Develin is underrated as a player because he is a fullback and this position is not prominent in today’s NFL. He is one of the reasons the Patriots’ running game was much more efficient this past year as opposed to two years ago when he was out for the entirety of 2015. With Develin available in 2014 and 2016, the Patriots averaged 1,800 rushing yards and 3.9 yards/attempt as opposed to 2015 where they ran for 1,404 rushing yards and 3.7 yards/attempt. This difference is not all because of Develin’s absence (poor offensive line), but the Patriots’ are able to commit more to the run when he is out in front run-blocking.

As for Brandon Bolden, I don’t think there will be a roster spot available for him come opening day because of the other running backs ability to play on more than one side of the ball (yes, special teams is a side of the ball): something that makes Bill Belichick salivate. Even though Bolden just signed a new contract this offseason for one year and $855,000 (per Spotrac), this entire team can’t be made up of skill players.

I’d be remised if I did not mention D.J. Foster. Not that he deserves his own paragraph, but because he is a running back on the team and we should probably talk about him, even if it’s just briefly. He’ll most likely wind up on the team, but only as a healthy scratch week-to-week. As a young 23-year-old and second year player, I think this pre-season will help him develop even further as a runner and special-teamer.

What’s in Store for 2017

White and Lewis, along with Burkhead and Gillislee, will provide the Patriots’ offense the most adaptable running back core in quite some time. I think that this offense will be even deadlier than last year, simply because every one of these backs can receive the ball (albeit Gillislee less than the others). Even Belichick acknowledged during an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio that this team will “have a little bit more versatility than we had in the past.” Belichick also added:

 “LeGarrette was a good first/second down type of guy, I think Burkhead has ability on all four downs. I think Gillislee has a little more versatility, Dion Lewis can play on all three downs. James White, as we saw later in the year last year, can play more on all three downs, although we used him more as a third down player. Hopefully, we’ll be a little bit less of a Blount on first down/second and short and Lewis on second down, White on third down, that type of [offense].”

Last season, the New England Patriots had their most rushing attempts in a season since 2013 and their most rushing yards since 2012. They ran the ball 43.59% of the time, which ranked 6th in the NFL. The Patriots have always had a running-back-by-committee approach to their game plan and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. One of Belichick’s strategies is to not necessarily have the best talent on the roster, but to have the players necessary to create the best talent overall. Last year, Blount was on the field for 527 plays and had 1,199 yards from scrimmage. Crazy enough, Burkhead and Gillislee were on the field for a combined 521 plays and 1,116 yards from scrimmage — almost identical numbers. With Gillislee and Burkhead on the team in place of Blount, these two will provide more value because of their ability to act as backs and as receivers, something Blount was not particularly skilled at.

With the Patriots new additions, they become an even more potent offense than last year’s team that was 3rd in league scoring and 4th in yards per game. They become even more unpredictable without the one-dimensional Blount and will be able to use these running backs in as many formations as Belichick and Josh McDaniels desire. With all the talk about the Patriots receiving corps going into this upcoming season, don’t overlook this backfield’s potential as it could help carry them back to the Superbowl.

Be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter: @aaroncomak.

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