The New England Patriots signed running back Rex Burkhead this offseason and they’ve signed an offer sheet with Buffalo Bills restricted free agent Mike Gillislee. Burkhead and Gillislee would join a backfield with James White and Dion Lewis. This is not a normal group of running backs.
This is an exceptionally efficient group of backs, supported by all of the advanced analytics you can find.
In 2016, Gillislee ran 101 times for 577 yards. While Gillislee lacked the volume of other backs, he was far more efficient. Gillislee posted a +45.0% DVOA rating by Football Outsiders’, which measures how a player compares to an average running back, easily the best mark in the league.
The #2 running back in DVOA (minimum of 70 attempts)? Rex Burkhead at +41.9%. The #3 running back was LeSean McCoy at +28.1%.
And it’s not just Gillislee and Burkhead. Lewis posted a +21.1% DVOA rating on 64 attempts, despite returning from injury and showing signs of rust. In 2015, Lewis received a 28.1% DVOA rating as one of the best in the league, showing that he could compete with McCoy when healthy. James White improved his DVOA from an appalling -22.1% in 2015 to a viable +7.8% in 2016.
Over the past two seasons, LeGarrette Blount’s DVOA has been +0.2% and +1.5%, an indicator that he’s been simply average given his opportunities on the field.
Outside of Football Outsiders, analytics site numberFire rated Gillislee and Burkhead as the two most efficient running backs in the entire league, as did Warren Sharp (and you’ll see Lewis on Sharp’s rankings, too).
Rex Burkhead (visiting NE) was #2 in success rate for RBs. But on plays that weren't successful, he was the #1 RB in fewest missed yards. pic.twitter.com/teWTuyYdpt— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 13, 2017
To translate these findings, Gillislee and Burkhead were successful on a higher rate of runs than any other backs in the league (Blount ranked 28th) and the Patriots are hoping to harness their efficiency in the New England offense.
And while Gillislee, Burkhead, and Lewis are productive and efficient running the ball (and White showed promise late in 2016), it’s important to evaluate their abilities as receivers, too.
In 2015, Lewis took the league by storm before his injury. He was en route to the 9th best season of receiving efficiency by a running back over the past decade, per numberFire. When Lewis went down, White stepped up.
White was the 3rd most efficient receiving back of the past decade, per numberFire metrics. Football Outsiders agreed, noting that Lewis was solid as a +14.7% DVOA receiver, but White was transcendent with +33.3% DVOA, the best mark in the league by running backs with 40+ receptions.
White was slightly less efficient with greater volume in 2016, but he still posted a +19.8% DVOA. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest receiving grade for a running back over the first half of the 2016 season, before the return of Dion Lewis.
And so the Patriots now have two of the most efficient rushers and two of the most efficient receivers on the roster (and Lewis could qualify in both categories when healthy). This is a backfield constructed in advanced analytics heaven.
With all of the positives in mind, it’s important to note that White’s decrease in efficiency in 2016 should be a warning sign: all four players have had extremely low usage rates and there is a very real chance that these players struggle when given more time on the field.
But the Patriots are gambling that at least a couple of these players will live up to the hype and they’ve invested in multiple options to increase their chances of success.