Patriots Running Backs Provide Layer Of Protection

The New England Patriots have not been known for investing heavily in running backs throughout the Tom Brady era – but the 2017 offseason has shown a drastic shift in that approach.

The Patriots entered the offseason with D.J. Foster, James Devlin (fullbacks are running backs too), Dion Lewis and Super Bowl hero James White already secured on the roster. They rewarded White with a three-year extension and brought back Brandon Bolden on a one-year deal. Even with all the contributors back at running back from a Super Bowl winning roster, the Patriots were nowhere near done adding.

First, the Patriots signed Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead to a one-year deal worth more than $3-million. This, by Patriots standards, is starter money for a running back. Burkhead signed with the Patriots after four seasons with the Bengals – including a career year in 2016-17.

They followed this up by signing restricted free agent Mike Gillislee to an RFA offer sheet for two years and $6.4-million. New England lured the 5th-year pro away from divisional rival Buffalo and only had to surrender a 5th round draft pick.

Add practice squad fullback Glenn Gronkowski and undrafted rookie LeShun Daniels Jr. and the Patriots currently are holding nine running backs on the roster – an extremely high number. The Patriots also worked out free agent Christine Michael before using the extremely rare May 9 tender to free agent LeGarrette Blount – adding to the running back intrigue.

Is this a tactical shift in Bill Belichick’s system? Likely not, but it could signal the acknowledgement that the Patriots do need to protect Tom Brady as he ages, or protect Jimmy Garoppolo if he takes the reigns of the New England offense in the near future.

This realization started to come to the forefront in 2016 when the Patriots rushed the ball 482 times. This is the third most times they have run the ball in a season since 2007 – an obvious turning point in the offensive system. This number was only bested by the 2012 season, when Stevan Ridley rushed for over 1,200 yards, and the 2008 season, when the Patriots were protecting Matt Cassel in his season filling in for the injured Tom Brady.

Much like in the 2008 season, the Patriots relied heavily on the run during Tom Brady’s absence through the first four games of the 2016 season. In that time, LeGarrette Blount amassed 88 carried while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett combined for just 114 pass attempts. Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels showed that he was willing to cover up the decencies of his young quarterbacks with a strong offensive line and heavy use of Devlin, Rob Gronkowski and others in the run game.

If the Patriots chose to move on from Tom Brady, or if Brady retires, having a strong running game will help ease the transition into the starting role for Garoppolo. Giving him good traditional and passing backs would allow him to have more options – leaving his less susceptible to big hits like the one that injured him in 2016.

After relying on Blount for this role in 2016, the Patriots upgraded with Gillislee in 2017. He is four years younger than Blount and averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 101 carries in 2017 – a vast upgrade from Blount’s 3.9 yards per carry in 2016. While Gillislee did not get near Blount’s staggering 18 touchdown runs in 2016 (he had eight), his increased opportunity should bring that number up. The youth, ability to gain yards after contact and speed make it much easier for McDaniels to have Brady or Garoppolo turn and hand off to him at an elevated rate.

The Patriots also bolstered their “passing” backs with the addition of Burkhead to White and Lewis. While Burkhead is not a traditional passing back – 74 carries and just 17 receptions in 2016 – he does a great job in pass protection and does a good job with the ball in the open field. He only has a one-year sample size, but was a very strong back for Cincinnati in 2016. He will provide a better option on passing downs for protecting both Brady and Garoppolo (if needed) while bringing a consistent offensive presence.

Combining these players with the emergence of James White as a premier performer in Super Bowl LI – it is clear to see that the Patriots recent stocking up on running backs is there to protect their current and future quarterbacks.