Last year isn’t irrelevant for Mike Gillislee. Only it wouldn’t do the running back much good to revisit it.
A career-high in carries. The lowest rushing average since his abbreviated rookie season. One touchdown coming after September. And just one appearance following October.
That wasn’t what the New England Patriots invested fifth-round draft compensation and a two-year, $6.4 million contract for last April. It wasn’t what Gillislee signed the restricted offer sheet to do, either, after leading the NFL with 5.71 yards per rush with the Buffalo Bills in 2016 while crossing into the end zone roughly once every dozen touches.
“Last year, like I said, it’s in the past,” Gillislee told reporters Thursday as mandatory minicamp wrapped up in Foxborough, via Patriots.com. “It’s something I don’t think about. I’m given another opportunity, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
Gillislee finished his inaugural season in New England having totaled 383 yards and five touchdowns on 104 carries, after totaling 577 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries in 2016. Hamstring and knee injuries bookended it. A drop down the depth chart behind Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James White and Brandon Bolden transpired in between.
Gillislee had the football in his hands only seven times after New England’s bye week. All seven took place against his former Bills teammates at the tail end of December – a meeting both Burkhead and White were ruled out for – and 28 rushing yards, a TD and 15 receiving yards followed.
To the inactives list Gillislee returned for the regular-season finale on through Super Bowl LII, though it’s unlikely he can afford to return there in 2018.
Gillislee is one of seven in the backfield entering the summer. And his exit before 53-man roster deadline would net zero dead money for New England, while his cap number of $2,181,250 would rank third at the position, according to OverTheCap.com.
“You’ve just got to stay focused, you know? But at the same time, you got to know that you’re blessed because there’s a lot of people that want to be in my situation,” said Gillislee.
It is a situation, however tentative, that the 27-year-old feels good about.
“Yeah. I’m still on the team,” he added. “Working hard each and every day trying to get better.”
Gillislee saw the free-agent departure of Lewis to the Tennessee Titans met by the re-signings of Burkhead and Bolden, as well as the arrivals of Jeremy Hill, undrafted free agent Ralph Webb, and the second first-round running back taken since Bill Belichick entered the war room.
“He’s a great guy, along with a great player,” Gillislee said of the No. 31 overall selection out of Georgia, who amassed 4,259 yards and 39 touchdowns worth of offense in 47 Bulldogs games. “He has a lot of talent and he’s a smart football player. It’s good to have him in the room.”
But that makes for little room. Gillislee, on his fourth team since landing as a fifth-round pick out of Florida in 2013, was made well-aware on the night of April 26. He was made aware over the weeks before as Burkhead re-upped on a three-year, $9.75 million pact, Bolden qualified for the veteran minimum-salary benefit, and Hill came over from the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year deal with his $150,000 signing bonus the lone guarantee.
The lone guarantee for Gillislee is the opportunity to make another first impression. He’s glad to have that.
“I just knew that I had to bring a little bit more to the table because there’s more competition added to the table with the other guys, too,” Gillislee said. “So, just coming out here every day and just working hard and just running with those guys is one of the best things ever.”