The 2017 New England Patriots boasted an enviable amount of depth to their running backs. The dynamic duo of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead was a nightmare for opposing teams, and James White came off the bench as one of the best third down backs in football. However, with Burkhead and Lewis heading into free agency, the running back position becomes a more crucial focus for the Patriots offseason. Here are some potential solutions to the New England Patriots running back situation.
What to Do About the New England Patriots Running Back Situation
Retain Lewis At the Right Price
In a perfect world, the Patriots would re-sign both free agent running backs and carry the same group as 2017. In reality, that probably won’t be possible. While Burkhead had a great year, Lewis was clearly the engine that made the running backs go.
Lewis took as the lead back in Week Five and was one of the best backs in the league. The third-year Patriot finished his season with 180 carries for 890 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. These numbers are impressive on their own, but Lewis almost certainly would have broke the century marker had he been the lead back all season. Lewis displayed a patience behind the line match only by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Despite his small frame, Lewis excelled at picking up yards after contact.
Perhaps most impressively, Lewis played a full 16-game season. Everyone knew about Lewis’ potential after his dominant eight-game stretch in 2015, but nobody knew if he could stay healthy. Since entering the league in 2011, Lewis has played in just 54 out of a possible 112 regular season games. Take away his 2017, and those totals fall to just 38 of 96 regular season games.
Dion Lewis has been the model Patriot, and New England would love to bring him back at the right price. However, the Patriots have never been known to invest heavily in the running back position, and some other team will probably gamble on Lewis staying healthy moving forward. Expect the Patriots to make an offer, but not as big as Lewis could find elsewhere.
Bring Back Burkhead
Rex Burkhead has a much higher chance of being a Patriot in 2018 than Lewis. Injuries limited the fourth-year pro to just ten regular season games and two postseason appearances, but he played well when on the field.
While not as talented as Lewis, Burkhead possessed the same ability to make plays in both the run and the passing game. Burkhead also had a nose for the endzone, scoring a combined eight touchdowns in his ten games.
Like Lewis, Burkhead is a great fit for what the Patriots do, and New England would love to have him back. However, unlike Lewis, his stock is a little lower. New England will likely be able to bring Burkhead back on an affordable contract and give him an even bigger role in 2018. Another one-year deal would make sense for both sides.
Believe in Mike Gillislee
The early down back this season was not supposed to be Dion Lewis. New England sent a fifth-round pick to the rival Buffalo Bills for the rights to running back Mike Gillislee. On paper, this was a perfect signing. The Patriots had just lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency, and Gillislee’s hard-nosed running made him seem like a natural fit.
However, the season didn’t play out well for him. After scoring three touchdowns in Week One against the Kansas City Chiefs, Gillislee’s season took a nosedive. He saw fewer touches with each passing game until he eventually became a regular healthy scratch as Dion Lewis emerged.
There’s a very real chance that he and his 2.8 million cap hit are cut loose from the team this offseason, but that might not be the best course for the Patriots. While some of Gillislee’s poor 2017 falls on his own shoulders, he wasn’t always put in the best position to succeed.
Gillislee was on the field exclusively in running situations. With Burkhead, White, and Lewis all being great receivers, keeping Gillislee in on passing downs was foolish. The downside was that any time Gillislee was in, the opposing defense knew it was a running play. At the time of his initial benching, Gillislee had faced more stacked boxes than any other running back in football. That’s not a recipe for a successful ground game.
Additionally, it seemed like the coaches never took the time to find what truly worked with the former Bill. Gillislee had terrible conversion numbers on third and short, but a lot of that was due to play calls that didn’t fit what Gillislee excels at. Gillislee is at his best going north-south, yet a surprising amount of toss plays were called in third and short situations. While Gillislee still needs to convert these situations, the coaches could have done a better job at increasing Gillislee’s odds of success.
Reasons For Hope
Those issues appeared to be figured out in Week 16. Gillislee found his way back into the lineup as Burkhead and White were out with injuries. While he was the clear backup behind Lewis, he performed well when on the field.
Gillislee put up 28 yards on six carries and 15 more yards on his first reception of the season. The reception came on a designed screen pass, something that was missing from the playbook earlier in the year. Additionally, Gillislee picked up a hard-nosed one-yard touchdown. Gillislee broke through the tackles that he wasn’t breaking earlier in the year.
This looked to be the big game that could turn Gillislee’s season around. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that game, and he wouldn’t return to the field in 2017. Hopefully Gillislee is able to carry that momentum from Week 16 into 2018, assuming he sticks around in New England.
Draft an Early Down Running Back
Even if Gillislee sticks around and Burkhead comes back on a one-year deal, the Patriots would be wise to invest in an early-down back. The Patriots have three picks in the first two rounds, but don’t expect those picks to be used on running backs.
Historically, the Patriots don’t draft running backs in the early rounds. Astonishingly, Shane Vereen is the only running back that Bill Belichick has ever taken in the first two rounds. Vereen was very much a third-down back, and White has that role firmly secured.
The Patriots will likely trade down in this years draft. New England has three picks in the first two rounds, but only one after that. Belichick will surely try to rectify that by trading out of one of those early picks. If a trade occurs, the Patriots would likely be in the running back market by the mid rounds.
Of course, this is assuming a trade nets them a pick somewhere in this third or fourth round. Depending on what picks they actually end up getting, look for the Patriots to aim for Oregon running back Royce Freeman, Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, or San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny.
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