One thing the New England Patriots have always been better at than other teams in the NFL is staying ahead of the curve. Whether it is moving to a 3-4 defensive base alignment or using two tight end-sets to create one of the league’s most prolific offenses, the Patriots have always been at the forefront when it comes to innovation in pro football. And the next one might already be on the horizon.
It has become clear over the years that the NFL is a passing league. Rule changes in the early 2000s have made throwing the football easier than it has ever been, and teams have quickly adapted — following a blueprint created by the 2007 Patriots and their spread, 11-personnel looks. And even though some teams like the 2015 Denver Broncos have effectively opposed this development in the short term, the overall trend is quite clear.
Passing is the name of the game, and a series of statistics compiled by TheGridFe.com’s Bryan Frye reflect this. The 2018 season, the 87th during which the NFL keeps track of passing numbers, ranks first in completions per game, completion percentage, yards per game, touchdown passes per game and passer rating, and is second in touchdown and interception percentage, interceptions per game and yards per attempt.
Schematic developments and rule changes over the last 15 years have made this possible and now, more than ever, teams are taking full advantage. Need an example, just look at passer rating: 10 weeks into the 2013 season, seven qualifying quarterbacks had a rating above 100. Five years later, we are looking at 14 to break this barrier. While the statistic itself is far from perfect, it is still useful to detect general evolutions within the game.
Meanwhile, defenses are desperately trying to catch up by investing in pass rushers and defensive backs to keep with the talented players on offense whether they run, catch, block or throw the football. If you cannot properly stop the pass in the NFL of 2018, your chances of winning look bad. Likewise if your passing offense is lacking, playing competitive football is hard. The 2009 New York Jets would struggle to have success in today’s game.
So what does all of that mean for a Patriots team that is not scared of zigging when everybody else is zagging? That they should not be afraid to take advantage of the current developments and move in the opposite direction to once more stay ahead of the curve: New England should buck current trends and invest in the running game — just like it did in the first round of the 2018 draft, when Georgia’s Sony Michel was selected.
While the reasons behind choosing the talented back 31st overall are manifold, the pick actually plays right into this potential counter-move to current developments: with pro football putting ever more focus on gaining yardage and creating favorable matchups via the pass, New England is investing in the ground game to take advantage of the lighter defensive packages it might face and of how the market is shaping up.
Just look at it this way: when you are searching for the highest-paid running back in terms of annual contractual value, you have to scroll all the way down to number 50. There, you will find the Pittsburgh Steelers’ LeVeon Bell, who was assigned the franchise tag earlier this year at a value of $14.5 million. He never signed the tender, though, and will miss the remainder of the season as a result. So you keep scrolling.
At 58, you will find the next running back: the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, who is arguably the best in the NFL right now and who hits his team’s salary cap with $7.2 million this season. For comparison, 188 players have a higher cap hit this year than Gurley — only one, the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy, is a running back. Teams are not investing in the position like they used to because the position itself does not longer have the same value.
However, this creates opportunity for investment and the Patriots appear to have already started: the team has three very good backs on its roster, only one of which (Michel) playing on a rookie deal. The other two, James White and Rex Burkhead — both versatile players who are highly productive in the passing game (especially White) —, hit New England’s salary cap with a combined $4.8 million in 2018.
With the position devalued, New England took advantage and secured a good player in Burkhead and an outstanding player in White at a relatively modest financial impact. It is already paying dividends for the team, especially in the latter’s case: White leads the Patriots in receptions and is one of the most productive offensive players in the entire NFL — at a fraction of the cost of some other high-priced wide receivers or tight ends.
New England should continue down this road and invest in its ground game even as the rest of the league is continuously moving away from it. This approach would not be a new one for the team: as mentioned above, the Patriots were one of the first teams to move from a defensive 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4. This, in turn, allowed them to access a low-value market and build in a relatively cost-effective way.
The running back market and all it entails — fullbacks, primary blocking tight ends, run-stuffing defensive tackles — appears to be 2018’s version of the 3-4 defense. Targeting it worked well for New England in the early 2000s, and doing the same might lead to similar success in the late 2010s and early 2020s. With White, Michel, and guard Shaq Mason in the fold, it looks like that could be the case.