In just about every friend group, there’s always that one person who’s just a liiiiiiiiittle bit behind the times. They’re watching shows everyone else already finished, they’ve probably got the same 5 Spotify playlists they’ve had for the past 3 or 4 years, and more often than not, their style is kind of “I get that jeans are expensive, but it may be time to upgrade, man”.
This year, at your fantasy football draft, that guy is going to make some joke like “Can’t draft Patriots running backs, they’ve got all those undrafted guys that’ll be the new Danny Woodhead!”
The wisdom of drafting a Patriots running back for your fantasy team notwithstanding, your boy there is also, as usual, wrong.
With all due respect to the Patriots running backs that made the “undrafted New England running back who promptly puts up 800-1000 all-purpose yards” a thing - like, specifically, The Law Firm Benjarvus Green Ellis and the godfather of grit himself, Danny Woodhead - not only have the Belichick-era Patriots thrown some decently high draft picks at running back since then, but for the 2018 season, they’re also among the biggest spenders in cap space for running backs.
Believe it: based on ‘18 cap dollars, there’s currently only six teams in the entire NFL spending more money on their running backs than the New England Patriots, the team where Bill never pays anybody and just finds guys like LeGarrette Blount laying around for the taking.
Here’s the top 10 rundown of 2018 cap bucks spent on running backs, according to Spotrac:
*Note: these numbers don’t include fullbacks, so it doesn’t include the 49ers’ “here, go buy yourself something nice” $21 million dollar contract for Kyle Juszczyk. Which, I mean, hey, it’s 2018, do what you want, I guess, right?
- Pittsburgh Steelers - $17,518,572
- Buffalo Bills - $13,443,750
- San Francisco 49ers - $13,434,012
- Jacksonville Jaguars - $12,001,300
- Houston Texans - $10,052,263
- Detroit Lions - $9,590,512
- New England Patriots - $9,469,166
- New Orleans Saints - $8,988,193
- Minnesota Vikings - $8,788,939
- Oakland Raiders - $8,735,423
As you can see, there’s a few ways to end up on this list - you can franchise-tag the most versatile home run threat back in the game, like the Steelers, or trade for LeSean McCoy and immediately give him a $40 million contract, or you can...well, you can also get rid of Carlos Hyde and pay Jerrick McKinnon $37 million dollars, if that’s what you’re into.
Here’s how that basically $9.5 million in cap space that the Patriots are putting into their backs this season breaks down (by 2018 cap hit):
James White - $2,437,500
Rex Burkhead - $2,312,500
Mike Gillislee - $2,181,250
Jeremy Hill - $1,331,250
Brandon Bolden - $720,000
Ralph Webb - $486,666
It gets better too, at least if you’re enjoying the premise of blasting the idea that the Patriots cheap out on running backs into a million pieces: once first-round rookie back Sony Michel signs his contract, New England will almost certainly leapfrog a couple spots on that list and may even land in the top 5. The Pulpit’s resident salary cap expert Brian Phillips has the incoming rookie and Oklahoma’s worst nightmare counting for about $1.76 million against the cap once he signs, so, quick math here, that’d put the Patriots climbing up into the #5 spot on that list above.
And out of the three backs that are roster locks on offense* - James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel - it’s pretty clear that the Patriots are leaning even harder than ever into versatility being more important than a 230-lb bowling ball like the Belichick teams of yore. All three of those guys have hands, can run up the gut or outside (with varying degrees of success, obviously) and can at least hold their liquor in pass protection. You hang in there with those few things in the McDaniels offense, and generally speaking, life will be quite good for you.
*Obviously, Mike Gillislee is left out on that list, and that’s purely for the fact that he could be cut this year with zero dead cap dollars. That’s no lock, my friends. That’s put-up-or-shut-up time in camp.
If there’s nothing else you get out of this, think about the Patriots devoting valuable cap space to an increasingly devalued position like this year’s version of Robert Kraft’s assessment of the Brandin Cooks trade from last year: it’s better to pay a little extra for above-average proven talent (side note: and players like White that Brady trusts) instead of rolling the dice every year.
Or, if you’re lucky enough to have two first-round picks, a few capable guys on your roster already, and a running back that’s got a first-round grade still on the board at pick 31 - why not both?