Rex Burkhead has been the hottest scoring running back for the New England Patriots. The 27-year old former Cincinnati Bengal has at least one rushing touchdown in his last four games. He is averaging 4.1 yards per carry over 10 games and 8.5 yards per reception on 30 receptions in that same time frame. When Burkhead was injured early in the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 15, Patriots fans cringed. Fantasy football owners clutched their heads and dragged Burkhead to the bench. With Burkhead likely sidelined for a week 16 matchup with the Buffalo Bills, the conversation once again returns to the Curious Case of Mike Gillislee.
The Curious Case of Mike Gillislee
Gillislee made a name for himself in college at the University of Florida, racking up 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season. The Florida Gators went 11-2 that season, taking down the seventh-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, the Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M Aggies, and the one-loss Florida State Seminoles. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins.
Early NFL Career
Gillislee played three games in 2013 for Miami and none in 2014. The Dolphins cut him early on in the 2015 season, and he was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals practice squad a few weeks later. A month later, the former Gators star was back on the market. He arrived in New York as a member of the Bills practice squad, and his talents eventually earned him a spot on the 53 man roster. Gillislee played the remaining five games of the season for Buffalo and signed a contract extension for the 2016 season.
Gillislee quickly became a feature in the Bills rushing attack behind LeSean McCoy. Finally given his chance to shine, Gillislee scored eight touchdowns and averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 101 attempts. His breakout performance caught the eye of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels in New England. When the Buffalo Bills failed to match New England’s offer sheet, the restricted free agent joined Chris Hogan and Stephon Gilmore as Bills-turned-Patriots.
New England Patriots
Before Burkhead donned the cowl of New England’s scoring back, Gillislee had the hot hand for the Patriots. In the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, Gillislee hit pay dirt for a career-high three touchdowns in a single game. Despite the ugly loss, the Patriots seemed content with their replacement for LeGarrette Blount.
Gillislee was the volume leader in the backfield for a while. He was the only running back to see greater than 10 attempts in the first several games until week six. In week six against the New York Jets, he was supplanted by Dion Lewis, who had out-rushed him on fewer carries the week before against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This marked the beginning of the end for Gillislee.
The running back’s production dipped after the game against the Jets, falling below four yards per carry average for the first time since late September and only seeing eight attempts against the Atlanta Falcons. After a week eight contest against the Los Angeles Chargers, Mike Gillislee vanished.
Despite still being the team’s second-best rusher in attempts, yards, first downs, and touchdowns, Gillislee has not played a snap for the New England Patriots since the bye week. For six straight weeks, Gillislee has been a healthy scratch. But, why?
Why did Gillislee disappear?
The simplest answer is that Gillislee does not fit into Josh McDaniels’ offensive scheme. If Gillislee’s statistics are compared to those of Lewis, Burkhead, and White at the beginning of the season, one significant statistic is missing: receptions.
Gillislee is a pure rusher. The ball is handed to him, and he deals whatever damage he can. Lewis, Burkhead, and White? They’ve become hybrid backs in New England. The Patriots want to avoid becoming a predictable offense. They want the defense on their toes regardless of who is standing in the backfield, especially in a red zone situation. If it’s Gillislee, it’s highly unlikely that Tom Brady is going to send the ball his way through the air. Defenses can stack the box and shut down the play easily. The Lewis/Burkhead/White group can create chaos for defenses. Should they defend against the run or the pass? With such a dynamic trio, there has been no room for Gillislee on the 46-man game day roster.
Does Gillislee deserve a return?
The short answer is that New England might not have a choice. Gillislee’s size made him the primary option for short-yardage gains at the beginning of the season, but the Patriots needed more from their running back rotation. Friday’s injury report listed Burkhead as officially out for Sunday’s game against the Bills, and White and Brandon Bolden both appeared as Questionable.
It has yet to be determined whether Gillislee will make an appearance for the Patriots in Foxborough this week. If he does, the fifth-year veteran out of Florida needs to demonstrate a different skill set than the one he presented at the beginning of the season. His competition in the running back pool is fierce and has far more upside. He will need to prove that New England can fit a pure rusher into its scheme. Without a standout performance, Gillislee might not see the second year of his contract with the Patriots.