The Patriots have released their first unofficial depth chart, ahead of Thursday's preseason opener against the Jaguars. Mike Gillislee is behind Rex Burkhead, who is on the second team. Dion Lewis and James White are back from last year and are listed on the first team. It's likely those two are the passing down backs, with Gillislee and Burkhead competing for the valuable goal line back duties. Brandon Bolden is also listed on the second team with Burkhead.
Gillislee has been nursing a hamstring injury since late in the first week of training camp, something he also dealt with in the spring.
This comes after Gillislee was the first to get a crack at goal line work in training camp and powered ahead for touchdowns on two consecutive plays. Burkhead also received first-team snaps since Gillislee has been out.
As is usually the case with Bill Belichick, this is a muddled situation and requires monitoring throughout the preseason. With Giovani Bernard sidelined, Burkhead averaged 10.8 touches for 56 yards as the change-of-pace back. Then, in Week 17 with Jeremy Hill also out, Burkhead turned in an epic 29-touch, 144-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Ravens. As a junior at Nebraska, Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns. If not for the Mike Gillislee signing, Burkhead would be first in line for the “big back” role. Now he’s likely fighting for snaps behind Gillislee and James White.
White's role in the running game is minimal -- what's important is his role in the passing game after Dion Lewis returned. In nine games without Lewis, White averaged 3.7 catches for 32 yards and 0.33 TD per game. After Lewis returned, White averaged 3.4 catches for 32 yards and 0.33 TD in the nine games leading up to the Super Bowl, so his passing down role remained largely unchanged after Lewis returned. Of course, White had a huge performance in the Super Bowl, turning 20 touches (14 catches) into 139 yards and three touchdowns, and per beat writer Mike Reiss, White has “won over” Bill Belichick and has “seized” the passing down role. The Patriots don't seem inclined to give him as many carries as they would Lewis, though his 4.3 YPC in 2016 was an improvement.