A big question at the running back position for the New England Patriots entering 2017 isn’t who can be the running back?, but instead how can we get all of these running backs the touches they deserve?
James White received a nice extension this offseason and is one of the best receiving backs in the league (second-best, if you trust Pro Football Focus rankings). He showed some promise as a runner in the postseason and throughout 2017.
The name at the top of the list of receiving backs in 2016 shouldn't be much of a surprise. pic.twitter.com/fOE46ujd6t— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 21, 2017
Dion Lewis is the most elusive of the running backs and is capable of both running and receiving, as evidenced in his one-man demolition of the Houston Texans in the playoffs.
Mike Gillislee was the most efficient rusher in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, and should get more time in the New England offense than he had in 2016 behind LeSean McCoy.
Rex Burkhead was the second-most efficient rusher, per Football Outsiders, and also received more opportunities as a receiver than Gillislee did. Burkhead showed his worth against a strong Baltimore Ravens defense late in 2016.
The Patriots are going to deploy these talents on an opponent-strength basis, meaning that teams with stout defensive lines will see White and Lewis, while lighter and faster defenses will have to deal with the power of Gillislee and Burkhead.
How do you think the Patriots' RB depth chart will shake out in 2017? pic.twitter.com/mklMCUMTSt— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 18, 2017
If we can oversimplify the position to a gross degree, there are four different traits for the Patriots running backs: 1) Power Running; 2) Finesse Running; 3) Receiving; 4) Pass Blocking. Special teams plays a role, too, but we’re just focusing on offense.
I would consider Burkhead the most well-rounded of the running backs, showing solid ability in all four categories. He might serve as the super-sub with a few drives per game, because he’s not the best in any of these groups.
Gillislee is the best power runner of the quartet, but lacks receiving experience. Lewis is the best finesse runner and a quality receiver, but he’s not the most powerful. White is the best receiver and pass blocker, but is still developing as a runner.
All four running backs are solid bets to make the team, making it even more difficult to set a pecking order. White received $4.69 million guaranteed and Gillislee received $1.5 million guaranteed from the Patriots in April, while Burkhead signed for $1.1 million guaranteed in March.
Lewis has arguably shown the most promise of all four running backs, but took some time to return from his leg injury in 2016 and has struggled to stay healthy his entire career. With just $200,000 in possible dead cap space, Lewis is an option to be traded if the Patriots receive a strong offer or would prefer to move forward with a player like Brandon Bolden or D.J. Foster.
If I had to make a not-very-bold prediction, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots rushing attack ended up with a fairly balanced load for all four running backs. When White, Lewis, and LeGarrette Blount were all healthy in 2016, the trio all played roughly a third of the snaps, with some opponent adjustments.
In 2013, the Patriots finished the season with Blount, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and Brandon Bolden all between 269 and 333 offensive snaps. That was due to fumbles (Ridley) and injury (Vereen), but the Patriots could head into 2017 planning for a balanced approach and let the ups-and-downs of the year dictate whether one player gets more time.
Which running back should lead the Patriots in snaps in 2017?
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