Training camp is almost upon us, and the New England Patriots running back situation will be one of the most interesting positions to watch. As per usual, it looks as though the Patriots will roll with a running back by committee. What’s unknown, however, is which running back will serve as the goal line back. With the shifty Dion Lewis now in Tennessee, the New England Patriots will need to find a new goal line running back.
New England Patriots Training Camp Battles: Goal Line Running Back
Early reports from minicamp state that incumbent Rex Burkhead will start training camp as the goal line back. However, that hardly means Burkhead is destined to hold the job all season. With training camp still weeks away, there’s plenty of time for that to change. First, let’s take a look at all the running backs who could realistically hold the position.
Note that this analysis does not include running back James White. White is one of the best receiving backs in the league and can run the ball well enough when called upon. However, he’s not a between the tackles runner capable of breaking multiple arm tackles. He’ll be used in the passing game, but won’t be the team’s go-to guy for tough runs.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top four guys in the running for the position. Each one offers something a little different, and each could easily end up with goal-line duties.
Sony Michel is probably the most talented back on the roster, as the first-round rookie absolutely oozes talent. The third running back selected, Michel was an absolute monster in the Georgia Bulldogs offense. Per NESN’s Doug Kyed, Michel was one of the most electric running backs in college and put up amazing numbers.
Some fun stats on Patriots RB Sony Michel, via @PFF:
— 14.1% of his 2017 carries were for 15+ yards. Those 675 yards represented 55% of his total 1,227 rushing yards.
— He averaged 30.7 yards per big run.
— He still averaged 4.1 yards per carry on runs of under 15 yards.
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) April 30, 2018
What Kyed doesn’t mention in this tweet is how Michel runs in short-yardage situations. Despite his 5’-11”, 214-pound frame, Michel was great in short-yardage situations. Per cfbstats.com, Michel received nine carries in third-and-short situations (three yards or less). On those nine carries, Michel recorded 70 yards while picking up six first downs, good for a 66.7 conversion percentage. Granted, 44 of those yards came on one play, but he still boasted a solid conversion percentage.
The biggest question with Michel is the uncertainty that comes with any rookie. Doing it in the NFL is a lot different from doing it in college, as the competition is now considerably bigger, stronger, and faster. While he’ll likely still be good in that role, he probably won’t convert at such a high rate.
Additionally, Belichick loves to rotate his backs, and Michel is likely to see early-down carries. Michel is far more dangerous on early-down runs and the passing game than he is in the short running game. The only way Belichick will use him in all three roles is if he’s vastly superior to the competition, a la Dion Lewis in 2017. Right now, that seems unlikely. While Michel could fill the role, chances are New England will go in another direction for the goal line and short yardage work.
As previously mentioned, the Patriots appear to be giving Burkhead the first shot to win the goal line job. Does this choice come from lack of better options, or is there reason to believe that Burkhead can thrive in this type of a role?
While we’re working with a very small sample size, Burkhead has done well in his limited opportunities. Throughout his career, Burkhead has received nine carries in 3rd/4th and short situations. In those nine opportunities, Burkhead has picked up 43 yards and seven first downs, good for a 78% conversion rate.
Additionally, Burkhead has received 18 carries in his career in the opponents 1-10 yard line. In those 18 attempts, Burkhead has picked up 40 yards, seven touchdowns, and eight first downs. This success aligns favorably with the average NFL back. In Burkhead’s limited experience, he has performed well in this type of a role.
The two biggest strikes against Burkhead are his inexperience and his injury history. As shown above, the fifth-year veteran doesn’t have the largest sample size to pick from. He only saw serious snaps on offense during the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, and even then he was used rotationally. Nobody knows how his body and production will react to being the go-to guy in a featured role like this.
Additionally, there’s the durability question. Given the biggest role of his career in 2017, Burkhead underwent two separate injuries which caused him to miss games. While he performed well when on the field, he struggled to stay there. Short-yardage running is the most physical type of running a back can do. While anyone would be prone to injuries in this role, Burkhead’s worries could be even more pronounced.
In 2017, the Patriots brought Mike Gillislee over from the Buffalo Bills to fill this specific role. With LeGarrette Blount gone, New England needed a hard-nosed runner capable of picking up the tough yards.
Unfortunately, Gillislee wasn’t that guy in 2017. In nine games, Gillislee recorded just 383 yards and five touchdowns on 104 carries. In short yardage situations, Gillislee received nine carries and picked up a first down just four times. Suffice to say, this isn’t what the Patriots wanted.
However, there are reasons to believe in a Gillislee resurgence. For one, Gillislee’s struggled were exclusive to 2017, he’s been a much better running back in the past. In 2016 with the Bills, Gillislee converted 13 of a possible 16 runs in short-yardage situations. Additionally, he also scored seven touchdowns on 11 carries within the opponent’s 10-yard line. If he can recapture some of his 2016 form he should retake the goal line position.
Recapturing that form is anything but a given. Right now, Gillislee isn’t even a sure bet to make the roster. It won’t be easy for him, but he does have the history and the skills to claim the role.
The last contestant in the goal line battle is longtime Cincinnati Bengal Jeremy Hill. Hill and Gillislee are a lot alike in that they both have a history of thriving in roles like this. However, also like Gillislee, it’s been a while since Hill has found that success.
Hill’s best year came in 2014 when the then-rookie ran for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns on 222 carries. While he wasn’t as prolific his sophomore season, Hill still managed to record 794 rushing yards and a league-leading 11 touchdowns. During his first two years in the league, Hill converted 21 of a possible 33 first downs in third and short situations, to go along with 16 touchdowns from within the opponent’s 10-yard line.
After a solid, if unspectacular, 2016, Hill struggled drastically in 2017. Fighting through an ankle injury, Hill recorded just 116 yards and no touchdowns in seven games. Still, even during his somewhat disappointing past two seasons, Hill has still managed to be a solid short-yardage guy. Since 2016, Hill has converted nine of a possible 15 first downs and recorded seven short-yardage touchdowns.
Hill claims to be fully healthy, but there’s no way to know for sure until the games start. If he can recapture some of that 2014 magic, he should take the goal line spot. However, even if he’s not completely 100%, he could still serve as a solid worst-case scenario for goal line work.
Last Word on Goal Line Running Backs
While each aforementioned running back is certainly capable of handling goal line duties, some are better suited than others. Burkhead is expected to get the first shot at the role, and that makes sense. He’s the only running back with success in New England, and he’s done well in minimal snaps in the role.
Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill are giant question marks, but each has a much higher ceiling in the role than Burkhead. The Patriots believed in Gillislee enough to send a fifth-round pick for his services last off-season. Should Gillislee recapture his 2016 form, he’s the best goal line back of the bunch, and should easily take the position.
Likewise, Hill isn’t that far removed from being a successful goal line back. Even during his recent struggles, he’s still converted a solid 60% of short-yardage runs. If he’s fully healthy, he could be the goal line back and should figure into the regular running back rotation. If he’s not, then he’ll compete for Gillislee for the final roster spot on the team.
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