When evaluating the Patriots roster for this upcoming season, it is difficult to find many holes. There’s a lot of talent and more importantly, a tremendous amount of depth. One area that is very deep, perhaps overflowing with players, is the running back position.
The Patriots backfield currently consists of James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, and D.J. Foster. The final two do not figure to have much of a role running or catching the ball out of the backfield this upcoming season as Bolden emerged as a special team contributor last year and Foster struggled with injuries and did not see the field much.
However, that still leaves the Patriots with four talented runners who are all deserving of and expect some form of touches each week. All four players can contribute and should be utilized to varying degrees in Bill Belichick’s offense, but each one has a little bit of a different expectation heading into the season.
James White will be starting the season fresh off a three year contract extension worth up to $12 million and still has the hearts of Patriots fans everywhere after fighting in for the game winning touchdown in Super Bowl LI. White should settle into a steady role in the Patriots system as a pass catcher and third down ace.
While White showed improvement running between the tackles last year he is at his best catching screens, finding space in the flat for dumps off, and occasionally motioning out and running routes down the field for Brady to hit him long.. Fans should anticipate a much heavier dose of passing plays than running for White, and hopefully he can continue to have consistent production following his heroics.
Dion Lewis will be looking to go a full season healthy for a change and provide a dynamic threat in the Patriots backfield. Lewis has played in seven games each of the last two seasons so health becomes his main priority. Fans should anticipate Lewis being expected to take a good share of carries, especially on early downs, and provide a receiving threat when needed. Lewis is effective between the tackles with his jump cuts, but can also bounce runs outside because of his speed.
Lewis caught only 17 passes for 94 yard in 2016, down from his 36 for 388 in 2015. If Lewis wants to carve out a role in the backfield he has to return to being a receiving threat. Some of the drop off may have been by design since he was returning to full health, but that excuse goes out the window after a healthy offseason. Lewis is explosive, and this season is a good chance for him to re-emerge as the dual threat he was in the first seven weeks of 2015.
Rex Burkhead was signed this offseason by the Patriots to a one year, $3.15 million dollar deal as a relative unknown to most fans. Burkhead had a breakout year in 2016 with the Cincinnati Bengals posting a career high 344 rushing yards and 145 receiving yards. Burkhead is only 5-feet-10-inches but he has good ability between the tackles. He is similar to Lewis in that he uses a lot of jump cuts at the line of scrimmage before picking out a hole and bursting through it. Despite his stature Burkhead is a adept at running through defenders with his head down rather than dancing around them.
Burkhead probably will not be featured as much as New England’s other runners but he can still prove valuable on any down. I expect him to have a good balance between rushes and passes and would not be surprised to see him in multiple formations. He can take carries out of the I-formation, next to Brady in the shotgun, and his quickness and hands may even allow for him to be put in the slot. Burkhead is not as talented a pass catcher as James White, but he is good at freeing himself in the flat and around the line of scrimmage as an outlet for the quarterback.
Mike Gillislee may be the best pure runner of the group. Gillislee was signed away from Buffalo as a restricted free agent on a two year deal. Gillislee is an incredibly fast runner who uses his own innovation and a lot of quick, sharp one step cuts to find running lanes. The former Bill tends to bounce his runs to the outside and rely on his speed and vision to gain yards. He is not a huge receiving threat, catching only nine passes last season, but his speed still makes him a threat when he has space to operate in open field.
The Patriots may lean on Gillislee to be their most dangerous runner, especially on first and second down. Gillislee found the end zone eight times last season as a backup, so now he may be looked at to fill the touchdown void with LeGarrette Blount having departed for Philadelphia. It would not surprise me to see New England look to Gillislee early on drives, utilize the other backs in between, and then turn to him once more in the red zone and goal line area. If Gillislee proves to be as explosive as he was last year then he could be in for a big contribution his first year here in New England.
The Patriots made a concentrated effort to add running backs in free agency and now they are full of depth. While initially the backs look like clones of one another, each one can bring something a little different to the table and should be able to contribute in their roles. As good as Patriots projects to be passing the ball, it is still important that they establish a strong ground game (yes, you still do have to run the ball even when Tom Brady is your quarterback). If all pans out the way Belichick & Co. hope, they might just have the deepest backfield in the NFL.