Last March, the New England Patriots stepped into the depths of restricted free agency and lured wide receiver Chris Hogan out of the Buffalo Bills’ waters on a three-year, $12 million deal.
This March, it’s worth wondering if the Patriots will attempt to take a similar approach with running back Mike Gillislee now that the NFL’s legal tampering window is open.
The Bills submitted an original-round tender to Gillislee on Tuesday, giving the organization the right of first refusal in the event the restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with another team instead of playing out the $1.797 million tender.
That, in turn, means that if Buffalo elects to not match a prospective offer, general manager Doug Whaley and Co. would receive a fifth-round pick as compensation for the 2013 fifth-rounder out of Florida.
It could very well come down to that.
Gillislee, who spent his first two seasons with the Miami Dolphins before making a stop on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad in 2015, has accumulated 844 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 148 carries for the Bills since then.
And in 2016, while serving as the top backup to LeSean McCoy, the Gators product managed to lead the league with 5.71 yards per carry as he notched 577 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground and added another via the air.
Along the way, he fumbled only once and had seven scampers of 20-plus yards and one of 40-plus.
The Patriots saw that dangerous efficiency firsthand.
Gillislee handled six carries for 30 yards and one catch for 13 yards against New England on Oct. 2. And he’d ultimately do more than double that output on Oct. 30.
“A strong, downhill runner,” Bill Belichick said of Gillislee in his Wednesday press conference before New England revisited Buffalo. “One-cut guy that's hard to tackle, good complementary player to McCoy. I mean, McCoy's exceptional. This guy's an elite back. He's tremendous. His explosive plays this year are by far the best in the league. He's very hard to tackle, he's got great instincts, he's a tremendous player. But Gillislee's a good back, too. They've got a good combination there. It's good depth. And Jonathan Williams – I'm sure we'll see him at some point, too.”
Belichick and the Patriots would not have to see McCoy in what wound up being a 41-25 win over Buffalo in those forthcoming days. A hamstring injury left the five-time Pro Bowler inactive, and thrust Gillislee into the lead role as Williams, a fifth-rounder in his own right, served as the change of pace.
Gillislee took the opening and ran with it to the tune of 85 rushing yards – the third-highest mark of his career – during that go-round.
He gouged the New England defense for a 28-yard gain on the second snap from scrimmage, and over the course of his dozen handoffs, he also managed to cross into the end zone.
Perhaps his AFC East opponent still remembers those glimpses. Even in a deep draft class of running backs, perhaps Gillislee would give a club like New England pause.
Gillislee could fit the mold of what New England is looking for as the new league year kicks off, especially so given that franchise record-setter LeGarrette Blount and core special-teamer Brandon Bolden are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at 4 p.m. ET Thursday.
Beyond them, sub backs Dion Lewis and James White are entering the final years of their respective deals, while undrafted signing D.J. Foster is the lone back on the books through 2018.
Gillislee is more so the former than the latter. His slashing style and 5-foot-11, 219-pound frame bode well between the tackles and also outside of them. And at 26 years old and with just 169 career offensive touches, his NFL odometer remains low.
Those selling points may not be enough to bring Gillislee to Foxborough more than once a year. Having looked on as Hogan departed in a similar capacity, there’s reason to think the Bills won’t let the Patriots call the same play twice.
But on the surface, it’d make sense for Belichick’s side to try.