An Honest Attempt at Forecasting the New England Patriots Backfield in 2017

Patriots Backfield in 2017

Bill BelichickPatriots coach Bill Belichick has confounded fantasy football players with his running back usage for as long as he’s been in Foxboro. The seven-time Super Bowl winning coach has a propensity to use a rotating cast of players in his team’s backfield. With the recent off-season additions of Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, it seems as though the Patriots will continue to confound fantasy owners that are audacious enough to rely on a Patriots running back. That’s where I come in. I’ve sifted through plenty of research in an effort to forecast just how each Patriots running back will be used this season – as well as what fantasy value they will possess.

After bringing in Burkhead and Gillislee, New England opted to let LeGarrette Blount leave via free agency, and the bruising back ended up signing for the Eagles. Blount had an incredibly productive season, fantasy-wise, last season as he carried the ball 299 times for 1161 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns. One player will likely struggle to replicate this production single-handedly. The more realistic vision for the backfield is similar to how Belichick rotated the running backs in the 2013 season, where four guys carried the ball at least sixty times. The main candidates for significant workloads are Dion Lewis, Super Bowl MVP snub James White, and Mike Gillislee. Burkhead should be in the mix for some carries here and there but he strikes me more as someone who will be asked to contribute on special teams, similarly to what he did in Cincinnati.

First off, we’ll take a look at why it’s beneficial to have some of these players on your radar. Despite fantasy football owners not trusting Patriots running backs, the Patriots have quietly run the ball quite a bit over the last handful of years. Since 2012, the Patriots have rushed the ball more than 470 times in four out of five seasons, which means there will be plenty of carries to go around. The Patriots also have a penchant for throwing the ball to their halfbacks, which could give Lewis and White some serious value as well.  Over the last two seasons, Tom Brady and the Patriots quarterbacks have targeted running backs an average of 130 times.

Mike GillisleeThe leading candidate to get the lion’s share of carries this season is Mike Gillislee. The former University of Florida halfback has the body stature that’s the most suitable to handle an extensive amount of carries. Gillislee stands at 5’11” and weighs a stout 219 pounds, which bodes well for his durability. Dion Lewis and James White are both shorter than the former Bill, and they each weigh about 195 pounds – which is on the lighter side for an NFL running back.

One thing that hasn’t been talked about much is the relatively small amount of carries that Gillislee has had since he started playing at the University of Florida. The 26-year-old still has fresh legs compared to many other backs his age given the fact that he registered only 389 carries in college and 154 in the NFL. To put that into perspective, 21-year-old Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 592 times in his three years at Ohio State and 322 times in his rookie year alone.

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Gillislee, surprisingly enough, led the league in yards per carry among running backs who had more than 100 carries. His 5.7 yards per attempt outranked fantasy studs like his former battery mate LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard, and Ezekiel Elliott. When trying to forecast what his season could entail in 2017, I went back and looked at the numbers for New England running backs since 2012. One favorable comparison is to Stevan Ridley’s 2012 season. Before flaming out of the league, the former LSU Tiger had one fantastic season where he carried the ball 290 times for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. Gillislee put up similar combine numbers to Ridley, besting the LSU man in the 40-yard dash by .11 seconds. Perhaps the former Bill isn’t as agile as Ridley but they both had a skill-set that thrives in New England as they have the ability to make one great cut and get into the second level. Ridley and Gillislee have almost the exact same frame, as they both are 5’11” inches tall – Ridley outweighs the new Patriot by just one pound.

If we extrapolate Gillislee’s 2016 stats based on the number of carries that Ridley received in a similar backfield situation back in 2012, Gillislee would rush for over 1600 yards and 23 touchdowns. It’s extremely unlikely that he’d be able to keep up such a high yards per attempt carrying the ball that much, but it’s not unrealistic to think that he could break the 1000 yard mark and contribute double-digit rushing touchdowns. The former Gator showed the ability to handle red zone carries last season in Buffalo and he should immediately assume almost all of the goal line work in New England with Blount gone.

[the_ad id=”66786″]Now we’ll move on to the trickier part which is trying to figure out how Dion Lewis and James White will coexist in the backfield. Both backs represent fantastic pass-catching options in the offense, which makes them worth monitoring if you play in point-per-reception leagues. There’s certainly upside for these two backs as at least one Patriots running back has tallied 40 or more receptions each year since 2012.

White is coming off arguably his best game in his career, which came in the Super Bowl, where he was targeted 16 times – catching 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also added two more touchdowns on the ground, which is a bit uncharacteristic of him. Belichick clearly trusts White, as evidenced by his multiple 16 target games in the playoffs over the past two seasons, and it will be hard for Lewis to unseat him as the team’s premier pass-catching back. The former Wisconsin Badger has seen his role increase in the offense drastically over the past three seasons, which culminated in a 60 reception season in 2016. White was a force to be reckoned with in the passing game, averaging 9.2 yards per catch and tallying five receiving touchdowns, which is the most by a Patriots running back since 2012 – which includes Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead. White’s receiving skill set is a bit different from Lewis’ as he’s more of a polished route runner and not someone who relies on speed to get open.

Unfortunately for White, he’s going to face competition for passing downs from Dion Lewis, who has been fantastic in his own right when healthy. The problem with Lewis is that he’s struggled with injuries his entire career and has never played more than seven regular-season games in a year since signing with the Patriots. Over the past two seasons, Lewis has averaged slightly fewer targets than White by a margin of 4.3 targets per game to 4.7. Lewis and White fill similar roles in the offense which makes them bound to cannibalize each other’s numbers to some degree this season. The bright side for the former Jet is that he has also shown the ability to produce numbers as a change of pace running back, which is worth noting as White failed to carry the ball more than seven times in any regular season game in 2016. The former Pittsburgh Panther had double-digit carries in three straight games to close out the 2016 regular season, to put things into perspective.

Hopefully, for both player’s sakes, Belichick and Josh McDaniels find a way to utilize both running backs in their game plans. This would be possible by having both White and Lewis play at the same time in shotgun formations or by having one of them line up in the slot, which White was tasked with doing against the Falcons. Josh McDaniels is nothing if not creative, and both of his pass-catching running backs could cause matchup nightmares against linebackers and tired legs.

Rapid-Fire Fantasy Breakdown

Mike Gillislee: The most likely candidate to receive a large share of carries in the Patriots offense in 2017. His running style is similar to other running backs that have had success in New England and he should get plenty of goal line work. He’s currently being drafted in the 7th round in standard league drafts, and he represents a low-risk-high-reward player. His 5.7 yards per attempt in Buffalo were no fluke, and he could be one of fantasy football’s breakout players this year.

James White: His role in the offense is pretty much set in stone. He had a great rushing performance in the Super Bowl but has never been asked to carry the ball on a regular basis for the Patriots. White is going to be a hit-or-miss prospect, even in PPR leagues, as he was only able to catch five or more passes in four contests last season. If he takes on a more significant role in the offense, which could happen in 2016.

Dion Lewis: The oft-injured tailback is the hardest one to predict for the upcoming season. The former Pittsburgh Panther has shown flashes of brilliance when healthy and should see a sizeable amount of carries as a home-run hitter or change of pace back. Lewis did not do himself any favors in the playoffs and Super Bowl last season as he was usurped as the team’s go-to pass-catching running back by James White. He’s currently going in the 10th round of PPR drafts, and that’s a spot that I would be uncomfortable taking him in. His extensive injury and uncertain role make him someone that I wouldn’t be interested in gambling on despite his high upside.

Rex Burkhead: The former Bengal is currently being picked in the 12th round of standard drafts. Burkhead is suited for a reserve role on the team due to his murky path to touches. He should make the roster as a special teamer. Given how good the other running backs are in this offense, I’m not too high on him, but with Bill Belichick, you never truly know who he will trust until game action is underway.

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