Breaking Down the Value of New England's Pass-Catching Backs

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Through seven games Dion Lewis accrued 622 total yards from scrimmage. James White’s emergence only further highlighted the importance of pass-catching halfbacks in New England’s offense. Yet despite their production, they are fungible players with a low salary cap impact. Since 2011 (when the current CBA took effect), the Patriots have used six players in this role with consistent results.

Examining production relative to cap hit reveals the value each player delivered and the factors behind it. Ultimately, a pass-catching back’s value comes down to his ability to be on the field. Health is crucial, but experience also matters. Veteran backs (i.e. Lewis and Danny Woodhead) got on the field right away. In contrast, the team’s drafted players (Shane Vereen and James White) had to wait at least a year for substantial playing time.

I have totaled the yearly rushing, receiving, and return yards of each pass-catching back since 2011. I divided that total by each player’s cap number (in millions of dollars), which was adjusted for cap inflation (i.e. for the player to take up the same percentage of the salary cap in 2015, what would his cap number be?). This result is the player’s Value Quotient (VQ) rounded to the nearest whole number. For example, in 2011 Shane Vereen’s cap hit was $750,000 and he gained 57 total yards. This gives him a VQ of 76 yards/$1,000,000

Player Yards Cap % Games VQ
Kevin Faulk 2011 91 1.00 7 90
Danny Woodhead 2011 945 0.85 15 1112
Danny Woodhead 2012 790 1.90 16 416
Shane Vereen 2011 57 0.75 5 76
Shane Vereen 2012 400 0.94 13 426
Shane Vereen 2013 701 1.09 8 643
Shane Vereen 2014 838 1.19 16 707
James White 2014 61 0.56 3 109
James White 2015 466 0.61 14 764
Dion Lewis 2015 622 0.79 7 787

The numbers reinforce the importance of availability. Danny Woodhead’s 2011 is by far the greatest value in this sample. The second best is Dion Lewis’ 2015. Were Lewis to stay healthy, his production over seven games comes out to 1,799 yards per $1,000,000 over a full season. It is also clear the team values experience. As rookies, both Shane Vereen and James White barely saw the field. However, the veteran players Woodhead and Lewis made a tremendous impact in their first years in New England.

This brings up a subtle point of roster management. Danny Woodhead and Dion Lewis both signed one-year contracts to join the team then received two-year extensions. Shane Vereen and James White were both signed to four-year rookie contracts, while not earning a substantial role until their second years. Based on this pattern, the team targets a three-year term of service. This keeps the running back stable young and cheap. It is unlikely we will ever see another 13-year workhorse like Kevin Faulk.

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