The New England Patriots have made ripples in the running back market this offseason by extending relatively expensive contracts to James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee. If Gillislee comes to the Patriots (the Bills still have a chance to match the Patriots offer), then the Patriots will be the only team in the league with three rushers in the top 25 most expensive at the position.
Gillislee and Burkhead both represent improvements at the position, but the 2017 NFL Draft is expected to be one of the deepest classes of running backs in recent memory, with early hype of being one of the best in history. So why would the Patriots add running backs in free agency instead of take advantage of the talent coming out of college?
Rex Burkhead and, potentially, Mike Gillislee look like upgrades to the Patriots running back corps. pic.twitter.com/7GEQI7wk73— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 20, 2017
One of the best pre-draft series comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn, when he speaks with scouts around the league to get an idea of how prospects are ranked. McGinn tackled the running back position and the scouts have an interesting take.
“Everybody keeps saying what a special running back draft this is,” an AFC personnel man said. “It’s been overhyped. There’s good players but next year’s class with the kid from Penn State (Saquon Barkley) and the backup from LSU (Derrius Guice) will be better.”
People should be wary of the, “next year’s class is better” draft takes because they rarely live up to expectations, but the personnel person raises an interesting question: is this running back class over-hyped?
There are three running backs that are supposed to go in the first round in LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. They are all excellent talents, but they all come with warts.
Fournette battled injuries in 2016 and struggled to create yards that his offensive line didn’t create; he’s also not a super-experienced receiver or blocker. Cook can run, catch, and block, but he has a history of fumbles, injuries, and off-the-field issues. McCaffrey is the most versatile of the three, but he’s on the smaller side (202 pounds) also battled injuries in 2016.
Beyond those three, the next running backs are all question marks. Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon has off-the-field problems. Why couldn’t Alvin Kamara beat out Jalen Hurd at Tennessee? Does Kareem Hunt’s limited athleticism reveal his production could be the result of Toledo’s easy schedule? Texas’ D’Onta Foreman has little experience as a receiver, fumbles a lot, and is oft-injured. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine saw his role decrease with each successive season.
And are any of these prospects better than what the Patriots have seen out of Gillislee or Burkhead against NFL defenses?
Unless the Patriots have a top 20 pick to use on Fournette, Cook, or McCaffrey (and all three could be gone in the top 15), then the Patriots are looking at running backs with a whole lot of question marks- so why not use a 5th round pick on Gillislee, or see if Burkhead’s late-season production in 2016 was a sign of something greater?
The running back class might have three blue chip players, but the Patriots will take proven experience versus potential hype every time they can.