With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with running back Tyler Gaffney.
Name: Tyler Gaffney
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 34
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-0, 220 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Despite coming off an outstanding senior season at the University of Stanford — he touched the ball 345 times, gained 1,795 yards and scored 22 touchdowns — Gaffney had to wait until the seventh round in the 2014 NFL Draft to hear his name called. He was unable to carve out a role with the Carolina Panthers, though, and was released during training camp after suffering a MCL injury. The Patriots picked him up via waivers, and subsequently placed him on their injured reserve list.
Gaffney spent the next two years moving between New England’s practice squad and injury lists, earning two Super Bowl rings despite not appearing in a single non-preseason game. He was eventually let go in 2017 and after a short stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars announced his retirement in March 2018 to focus on baseball. He subsequently appeared in 89 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league affiliates, but one year later retired again to once more try his luck in the NFL — and to possible finally appear in a “real” game.
What did his 2020 season look like? After having spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons out of football, Gaffney returned to the game last August by visiting the Houston Texans on a tryout basis. While unsuccessful, he was back on the league radar and earned other tryout opportunities: he worked out for the Washington Football Team in September and later during the regular season with the San Francisco 49ers as well. The 49ers eventually ended up signing him to a practice squad contract in December.
Gaffney ended up spending the final two weeks of the regular season on the 49ers’ developmental roster, but he again did not get promoted to the active roster or see any playing time. Three days after San Francisco’s season came to an end in early January, the club parted ways with him again. Gaffney remained unsigned for more than four months before the Patriots brought him back for a second go-around: he signed a one-year contract with the club to compete for a job on a deep running back group.
What is his projected role? With Damien Harris, Sony Michel and Rhamondre Stevenson all capable early-down runners, the Patriots will likely try to use Gaffney like they did during his first stint with the club: he will serve as a change-of-pace and receiving back, possibly competing for the role previously held by Rex Burkhead. As was the case during the 2016 preseason, Gaffney also has some value in the kicking game and could be given a role there as well.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Gaffney has some experience playing in the game’s third phase. During the only four games of his NFL career — the Patriots’ preseason slate in 2016 — he was used on all four kicking game units: the Stanford product saw action on punt return and punt coverage teams, and also was employed on the kickoff return and kickoff coverage squads. It would not be a surprise to see him used like that again this year.
Does he have positional versatility? All 94 of Gaffney’s preseason snaps in 2016 came with him aligned in the backfield, which might be an indication that the team does not see him as a particularly versatile player from a positional perspective. That said, his potential receiving contributions and the numbers he put up at Stanford as both a runner and a pass catcher suggest that he could be used in a somewhat versatile role even if not moved around the formation like James White, for example.
What is his salary cap situation? When Gaffney joined the Patriots during the offseason workout program, he signed a one-year contract with the club at a value of $660,000. The deal itself is pretty straight forward: with the 30-year-old not getting any guarantees, he is currently not counting against New England’s salary cap under the NFL’s Top-51 rule. Gaffney’s contract will only be counted after he makes the roster, signs a practice squad deal, or is placed on injured reserve.
What is his roster outlook? The Patriots, as mentioned above, have a deep running back group at their disposal. While the early-down runners are aplenty, however, the receiving group has only one true lock currently under contract: James White. Gaffney beating out Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor this summer would be a surprising outcome, but stranger things have happened in New England through the years. Unless he breaks out during training camp, however, Gaffney seems to be facing an uphill battle to make the team.