The New England Patriots have seen some major change at the running back position over the course of the 2017 offseason: While the workhorse back of the last four seasons, unrestricted free agent LeGarrette Blount, was not re-signed, the team opted to invest considerable resources into two other players: free agents Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
Burkhead was brought aboard as an unrestricted free agent and signed to a one-year, $3.15 million contract. Gilllislee, on the other hand, was lured away from the Buffalo Bills via restricted free agency. New England signed him to a two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet. His former team did not match and the Patriots sent a fifth round draft choice to their AFC East rival.
The Patriots obviously had a plan in mind when opting to go with Burkhead and Gillislee instead of Blount. And head coach Bill Belichick gave a little insight into it when he visited Sirius XM NFL Radio yesterday. According to Belichick, New England's new backfield should serve two purposes: Bring more versatility to the offense while simultaneously making the unit less predictable.
Acknowledging Burkhead and Gillislee, the future Hall of Fame coach noted just that: “I would say that I think this year we have a little bit more versatility than we had in the past,” Belichick noted: “LeGarrette was a good first/second down type of guy, I think Burkhead has ability on all four downs. I think Gillislee has a little more versatility, Dion Lewis can play on all three downs.”
“James White, as we saw later in the year last year, can play more on all three downs although we used him more as a third down player,” Belichick continued before adding that re-signed core special teamer Brandon Boldin also gives the team three-down versatility. “Hopefully, we'll be a little bit less of a Blount on first down/second and short and Lewis on second down, White on third down, that type of [offense].”
As Belichick pointed out, both of New England's offseason acquisitions have the ability to attack a defense running on the perimeter or the interior while simultaneously being able to catch passes out of the backfield. While Burkhead saw more action as a pass receiver over the course of his career than Gillislee, the ex-Bill also had respectable numbers – especially when compared to Blount.
While New England's former number one running back caught a pass on 2.5% of his offensive touches with the team, Gillislee's number over his four-year NFL career stands at 8.9%. For comparison, Boldin sits at 19.2% through five NFL seasons, Lewis at 29.6% during his two years in New England, Burkhead at 29.9% over his four-year career and White at 67.2% through three years.
The newly added versatility will – ideally – not only make the offense less predictable, according to Belichick, but also help with the run-pass-distribution: “Hopefully, this year, we'll have a little more balance between the running game and passing game,” Belichick pointed out. However, the Patriots are actually coming off a year in which they have had the fifth-highest run-pass-ratio in the NFL.
New England ran the ball on 45.6% of offensive snaps in 2016 but the number decreased to just 34.2% during the playoffs (via Evan Lazar). A lot of this had to do with game plans and in-game adjustments: The Patriots were focred to throw more during Super Bowl LI, for example, and opted to attack the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game by primarily using the pass.
Still, incresing the unit's versatility might make New England's offense even harder to defend – even though it might not drastically alter the percentages: It will allow the team to be less predictible and use different backs and their skill sets no matter the situation. The running game could thus become a perfect complement to an already potent aerial attack.