Re-Examining the New England Patriots Running Back Corps

Patriots Running Back Corps

The New England Patriots offense took some nasty hits this off-season. While the departures of Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler were expected, they still stung. Nothing hurt quite as bad as losing Danny Amendola to the team’s division rival, the Miami Dolphins. Still, a productive 2018 NFL Draft gifted the offense a new running back, a new wide receiver, and a new quarterback. Now that Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady are confirmed to return for the upcoming season, the remaining offensive concerns lie with the team’s pool of running backs.

Sifting Through the New England Patriots Running Back Corps 

Lewis was the only loss to the running back rotation this year. Even with a hugely productive year, his asking price was simply too much for the Patriots to sign off on. Although Lewis was the team’s main runner last year, his loss doesn’t leave the Patriots empty-handed. In fact, the team’s total additions throughout free agency and the draft have left the running back depth somewhat crowded. In total, there are currently eight backs on the roster.

However, two of these backs don’t technically count. The recently re-signed Brandon Bolden serves primarily as a special teamer. He saw some action on the offense last year, but not nearly as much as he did prior to 2016. James Develin is the team’s fullback and used mostly for his blocking ability. Develin hasn’t seen a single carry in the last two years but has been useful in holding the line to allow the team’s other backs to make decisive plays.

Tried and True

Of the remaining six, only three have any experience with the Patriots playbook. With the departure of Lewis, Rex Burkhead will likely become the team’s next lead back. While he lacks Lewis’ agility and speed, Burkhead’s pass-catching ability and ability to take hits and keep running has been beneficial to the team’s success with the run game. Last year was Burkhead’s first year with the Patriots, and he performed well enough to yield a three-year extension from the team. Expect to see Burkhead’s carries increase in the upcoming season as he moves up in the fold.

James White, whose pass-catching skills helped win Super Bowl LI for the Patriots, will move up as well. This coming season will be White’s fifth with the Patriots, and his workload has only increased every year since his start. White recorded a career-high 732 yards – rushing and receiving – as well as seven total touchdowns between the regular and postseason. Both Burkhead and White are essential to the Patriots run game, so the two players will most likely make the 53-man roster.

The last running back with prior Patriots experience is Mike Gillislee, who came to the Patriots from the Buffalo Bills during the 2017 free agency period. During the first few games of the 2017 season, Gillislee performed well. In fact, he performed beyond expectations. Splitting the field with Lewis, however, wasn’t in the Patriots plans. Gillislee would sit out as a healthy scratch for seven straight games and remain inactive throughout the playoffs.

Gillislee’s future with the team is iffy at this point. The addition of other backs means his position is up for competition, but the Patriots haven’t had a true power back since losing LeGarrette Blount. Gillislee is as close as the team has come to filling that void. At least until recently…

The New Guys

Jeremy Hill was one of the three running back additions to the Patriots roster between free agency and the draft. Hill, another transplant from the Cincinnati Bengals like Burkhead, will likely compete with Gillislee for the power back role. Hill had a standout year in Cincinnati back in 2014 when he broke 1,000 rushing yards and reeled in nine touchdowns. Hill’s productivity has decreased since then, but he remained a valuable contributor to the Bengals offense until 2017 when an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve.

Of the two, it seems likely that Hill beats out Gillislee for the power back role. Even after recovering from an IR-worthy ankle injury, Hill simply has more experience with better numbers.

During the 2018 NFL Draft, the Patriots defied expectations and used their second first-round pick to draft Sony Michel, a running back out of Georgia. Michel is the likely option to take over Lewis’ skill set. Our own Patrick Johnson offered his insight into Michel’s value, saying “He possesses terrific vision and a burst that should translate perfectly to the Patriots system. […] He has the potential to open up the offense and become the three-down back the Patriots rarely have. In any case, Michel’s impact with New England should be immediate and forceful.”

Finally, the Patriots also picked up UDFA Ralph Webb out of Vanderbilt. While Webb is a hard worker, his record in college was just average. He’s mentally strong but lacks the physical ability to thrive in the NFL, let alone an offense as complex as New England’s. If it comes down to a competition, it’s highly unlikely Webb beats out his fellow rookie.

Last Word on the New England Patriots Rushing Corps

Count ’em: Burkhead, White, Hill, Michel. These are the four running backs the New England Patriots will load into their offense come September. Make no mistake, although this rushing corps doesn’t feature big names like Le’Veon Bell or Ezekiel Elliott, Bill Belichick will transform this unit into a force to be reckoned with.

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