The Patriots made big moves at the RB position in the offseason, signing free agents Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead while also extending Super Bowl LI hero James White’s contract for three more seasons. In 2017, the expectation was those three would be carrying the team at the RB position. Instead, it’s been the one player who didn’t grab headlines for contract related reasons that has emerged out of this group. Coming back from two knee surgeries between his last game of 2015 and first game of 2016, Dion Lewis is finally back to pre-ACL tear form and has reclaimed his 2015 role as the primary back in the offense.
Burkhead and White are still playing to expectations and getting snaps as the normal rate, but it’s been Gillislee who’s been phased out of the offense. It’s not a knock on Gillislee, his problem is that he plays in an offense that relies on backs who are great at catching and running in the open field more than a back whose skill set is exclusively as a rusher. When Gillislee has been on the field, the Patriots have run the ball at about 70% of the time. That’s a tell to the defense, which is why Gillislee’s numbers have been pedestrian and a reason why he’s been phased out of the offense. Why give the defense an advantage when you can plug in Lewis who for the most part can be effective for pretty much any situation and personnel grouping?
The Patriots don’t have a bellcow back that they can hand off 20 times a game anymore with LeGarrette Blount’s departure, so it’s been a committee approach to the backfield. Given that Lewis, Burkhead, and White are all capable of being big threats in the passing game, the versatility allows for Josh McDaniels to call plays better suited to attack the opposing team’s weakness. Since Week 6, Lewis has touched the ball 70 times (63 carries, 7 catches) and gained 392 yards from scrimmage. In that same time frame, Burkhead has 40 touches (25/15) in 4 games since he missed the Week 6 games vs. the Jets, and White 25 (12/13) in 5. On a per game basis, Lewis has averaged 14 touches, Burkhead 10, and White 5. So those 3 backs are averaging about 29 touches a game with Lewis getting roughly 50% of the workload in terms of touches out of the backfield.
There is a really good reason why Lewis gets the lion’s share of the touches for the backs. Lewis is the best runner between the four backs with his ability to accelerate rapidly accelerate to maximize the amount of yards the offensive line blocks for. At 5’8” 195, Lewis may be undersized compared to most primary ball carriers but he isn’t afraid of contact when running the ball and is able to run through arm tackles and over flat-footed linebackers and defensive backs. Lewis hasn’t gotten the ball a lot out of the backfield due to Burkhead and White getting those touches, but Lewis is equally as capable to make plays as a receiver as he is as a runner as the Raiders found out the hard way.
In terms of snaps, Lewis has been around 25-30 snaps in the last 5 games, save for a 21-snap game against Denver where the Patriots opted to use Burkhead more (36/70 snaps in Week 10) against a defense that struggles to cover backs that are deployed as receivers. The overall trend is when the Patriots want to use a back as a weapon out of the backfield, they’ve turned more to Burkhead, who has the most catches (15) of the 3 backs since Week 7 although White has 13 over that stretch with 0 against the Raiders. When the Patriots want to run the ball more, Lewis sees an increase in snaps. The trend with the backs the last two games has been Lewis the primary rusher with Burkhead and White sharing the receiving back role with White playing more on situational downs and Burkhead on earlier downs. That trend could change as the season continues with injuries or game plan requiring a different approach.