How to Attack the Patriots Backfield in 2017 Fantasy Drafts
Almost every data point suggests the analytically-minded Super Bowl champs have the best backfield depth in the league, and frankly, it’s not even close. In that respect, any combination of Mike Gillislee, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis looks better on paper than the number-one and number-two options on most teams.
Gillislee has been dealing with a hamstring injury, the severity of which is unknown, but head coach Bill Belichick has said they were looking for more versatility than they had with LeGarrette Blount last year. White has probably “won over” everyone that matters after his epic Super Bowl performance, but how valuable can his defined role be in this offense? Burkhead has seen plenty of short-yardage reps so far in camp and looks to be the direct beneficiary of Gillislee's injury at this moment. Not sure I buy Lewis is fighting for a roster spot, as the team is 17-0 when he plays, but it’s an interesting situation to monitor.
As I sift through narratives to write these introductions, it’s tough not to piggyback off Chris Raybon’s 3 Key Fantasy Football Facts About Every NFL Team's Offense article—it’s that good. More great stuff on the Patriots backfield that deserves some love:
Bill Belichick's running back usage can seem unpredictable at times, but he actually has clearly defined roles for his backs. Belichick has stated James White is firmly entrenched in the sub-back, or passing-down back, role. The issue for White is that injuries caused the Patriots to target running backs at a top-six rate in each of the past two seasons, but the team had been ranked 20th or lower in 5 of 6 seasons prior. Adding Brandin Cooks and getting a healthy Rob Gronkowski creates a plethora of receiving options which may put a dent in White's target share.
New England's power-back role, most recently occupied by LeGarrette Blount, has produced 10+ rushing TDs in four of the last five seasons. During that span, New England has not ranked lower than fourth in offensive snaps from inside the 10-yard line. Despite Rex Burkhead being acquired first, Mike Gillislee was the frontrunner for the power-back gig, while Burkhead is more likely to take over Brandon Bolden's special teams role and serve as a backup in both running back roles. However, Gillislee has hit a snag with a lingering hamstring injury in camp. Whoever plays the power-back role will have massive upside.
Can Gillislee give us more than what Blount did a year ago? What do we do with the rest of this uber-talented group? More importantly, who carries the most upside relative to cost?
The entire New England Rushing Expectation charting, which balances metrics with film evaluation—one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football—will provide some clues as to how to attack the Patriots backfield in 2017 fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Mike Gillislee
Gillislee has rare burst, but also runs with good patience and above average decisiveness as he approaches the line of scrimmage.
On film, Gillislee is a tough runner with good athletic ability and mental processing skills. He is constantly looking downfield, so when he decides to turn the corner and use his above-average speed to find that second gear…see you later.
GIllislee rarely ever turns a poorly blocked play into an unsuccessful one and usually avoids losses, even if it’s for a small gain. His vision is above average and he shows good creativity between the tackles.
Gillislee does a good job maintaining his solid balance through contact with good pad level. Though he possesses average strength, he attacks defenders routinely and shows no fear of contact—the fact he has the intensity to give everything he has on each touch is an admirable quality.
Expected Success Rate is the signature metric of Rushing Expectation, and highlights the fact not every Success Rate is created equally. (If you are new to this series, you can learn more about this metric in the introduction article.) Let’s see how efficient Gillislee performed relative to his offensive line in Buffalo:
The Bills' overall Expected Success Rate in 2016 on rushing attempts was 44.1 percent, below the NFL average of 46.3 percent. This may be surprising to some, but let’s not forget my metric is based on Adjusted Line Yards and Team Success Rate, with the former assigning a certain amount of responsibility to the offensive line for every rush based on length, rather than being a traditional offensive line “grade.” That being said, Gillislee has been most successful running through the middle, which is by far his largest sample. His Expectation Score was in the 98th percentile of my entire 60-player sample—not a typo.
On the surface, Gillislee’s charts may infer overall versatility could be a concern. When you dig deeper you realize that in many ways he complements what the Patriots want to do on offense much more than LeGarrette Blount ever did. Per Chris Raybon:
“Eighty-five percent of Blount’s carries came from under center last season, 74 percent of Gillislee’s career carries have come out of the shotgun, the formation where Brady and the offense have been at their best.”
So much of Gillislee’s key metrics in my process resemble Spencer Ware, fantastic company to be in I may add. Gillislee finished in the 89th percentile in yards before contact and the 63rd percentile in yards after contact. Even more impressive, he faced eight or more in the box at a rate in the 94th percentile relative to his total rush attempts. His efficiency was superb, with a 90th percentile Success Rate versus seven or less in the box and 99th facing eight or more.