The New England Patriots currently have the maximum of 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on September 1 and ultimately make the team. Over the next weeks, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s running backs.
Name: Mike Gillislee
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 35
Opening day age: 27
Size: 5’11, 210 lbs.
2017 review: One year after signing away Chris Hogan as a restricted free agent, the Patriots set their sights on another Buffalo Bills offensive player: Mike Gillislee. The team signed the running back a front-loaded two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet that the Bills did not match during the five-day window. New England sent a fifth-round draft pick to their AFC East rivals and received Gillislee in return.
The signing looked like a steal early on during the regular season: Primarily serving as a goal-line back, Gillislee scored three touchdowns in his first game with the team. However, he failed to build on his encouraging opening day performance. While Gillislee received double-digit carries in each of the Patriots’ first six games, he only heard his number called a combined 25 times throughout the rest of the season – regular and playoffs.
Overall, he ended the year with 104 carries for 383 yards and five touchdowns. But despite ranking second on the team in each category, Gillislee was an afterthought for most of the second half of the season: He was active only once after the Patriots’ week nine bye and ultimately finished the year having been on the field for just 15% of offensive snaps (171 of 1,139). Gillislee also was a healthy scratch during each of New England’s postseason games.
The first-year Patriot suffered from his lack of versatility. While the team’s other early-down running backs – Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead – were dangerous options as pass catchers as well, Gillislee was a one-trick pony in comparison: when he was on the field, chances were New England ran the football. And while he found some success in short-yardage situations, the Patriots apparently felt better having Gillislee on the sidelines late in the year.
2018 preview: Entering his second and final contract year at a salary cap hit of $2.18 million, Gillislee is not guaranteed a spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this fall. Instead, the 27-year old will have to earn it in a competition against fellow running backs Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden, and Ralph Webb. All four players will fight for a maximum of two open spots on the team alongside James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel.
In order for Gillislee to win this battle, he will need to manifest himself as New England’s top short-yardage player again and a running back capable of a) serving as a reliable early-down option, and b) closing out games as the bell-cow runner. When it comes to earning a role behind the top trio, Hill is projected to be his primary competition. Gillislee has one advantage over the first-year Patriot, though: experience.
If Gillislee can use his first year in the system and learn from it to make a potential second-year jump, his chances of beating out Hill, primary special teamer Bolden, and undrafted rookie Webb will certainly increase – despite ending 2017 on a low note. Ultimately, though, this might not be enough. It would therefore not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to move forward without Gillislee and instead hand the keys over to other options.