I’m all for the use of advanced analytics and I have been using them to drive the Mike Gillislee hype train all offseason. The New England Patriots signed the restricted free agent running back away from the Buffalo Bills and I was throwing confetti all over my keyboard because Gillislee checked off all the boxes.
He led Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings and didn’t fumble.
He avoided negative runs and always put the team in the best possible field position.
He posted the best yards per carry rate over the past two seasons.
What’s not to love about Gillislee as the replacement for LeGarrette Blount?
Well, here’s the “Yards Before Contact Per Attempt” statistic from Pro Football Focus to put a damper on my parade.
Yards before contact per attempt by offensive line in 2016: pic.twitter.com/MpGBQtJmXp— Jeff Ratcliffe (@JeffRatcliffe) March 13, 2017
What you see is the Buffalo Bills absolutely lapping the field with regards to their run blocking. On average, Bills rushers gained 2.88 yards before a defender could lay a hand on them- and Jeff Ratcliffe notes that scrambles are not included, so QB Tyrod Taylor isn’t skewing the figures.
The Patriots are doing well in 11th place and they’ll likely improve as LG Joe Thuney enters his second year and as C David Andrews and RG Shaq Mason continue to develop. But Bills rushers gained an extra yard more than the Patriots rushers before initial contact so there is cause to question how Gillislee will produce in New England.
Football Outsiders notes that the Bills running backs ranked 22nd in getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage (the Patriots ranked 16th), but 1st in generating rushing yards down the field (the Patriots ranked 21st). This means that the Buffalo offensive line struggled to sustain blocks at the line of scrimmage, but if the running back made it beyond the line of scrimmage, they were likely to generate a huge gain.
Now Gillislee has averaged 5.70 yards per carry over the past two seasons. If you substitute in the Patriots offensive line for the Bills’ (this is napkin math and not a perfect study), then Gillislee projects to gain 4.56 yards per carry in New England- no longer the best in the league, but roughly the same as Dion Lewis’ average and one of the best rates in the league.
Another saving grace for Gillislee is that Football Outsiders suggests that the Patriots were one of the rare teams where the running backs failed to generate as much yardage as the offensive line created and only the Colts, Vikings, and the Rams received less help from their running backs.
So Gillislee might be able to take better advantage of the Patriots offensive line than Blount was able to, even if he won’t produce at the same otherworldly rate as he did in Buffalo. But the success of the Buffalo run blocking in helping Gillislee generate yardage at such a high rate certainly deserves further scrutiny.