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What to Expect from the New England Patriots’ Four-Headed Backfield

  • The Patriots again appear poised to enter Week 1 with four active running backs: Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, James White and Jeremy Hill.
  • Using the Patriots' history under Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, I will walk through what to expect from each player this season and what that means in fantasy football.

The Patriots have routinely utilized multiple running backs during Bill Belichick’s time as head coach. This has enabled an alarming number of running backs to ball out during any given week over the years, as 17 of them have scored multiple touchdowns in a single game for the Patriots since 2000.

Random three-touchdown performances from the likes of Mike Gillislee and Jonas Gray have understandably infuriated fantasy investors over the years, but the backfield has usually produced multiple fantasy-relevant backs during Josh McDaniels’ second stint as offensive coordinator:

  • 2017: RB15, RB38 (PPR)
  • 2016: RB9, RB27
  • 2015: RB43, RB44
  • 2014: RB20, RB64
  • 2013: RB36, RB37
  • 2012: RB15, RB23

Of course, figuring out New England’s pecking order in the backfield has been far easier said than done: 2017’s season-opening committee saw each of Gillislee, James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis play at least five snaps.

The Patriots again appear poised to enter Week 1 with four active running backs. Gillislee and special teamer Brandon Bolden were released, so it appears Burkhead (knee, probable), White, free agent addition Jeremy Hill, and first-rounder Sony Michel (knee, questionable) will each see offensive snaps against the Texans.

Note: Bolden was also released around this time last season before eventually being re-signed, but the Dolphins have already scooped up the former special teams ace. Hill received plenty of preseason work on special teams.

Each back possesses theoretical three-down ability, but we can start to see a potential committee role if we look a bit closer.


Rex Burkhead

The Patriots have been cautious with Burkhead during training camp because of a slight tear in his knee. Still, The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported, “They expect (Burkhead) to be a focal point of the offense during the regular season, especially while Julian Edelman is suspended.”

Burkhead is the frontrunner to stand alongside Tom Brady on the first snap of the season thanks to a fantasy-friendly skill set that was put to efficient use last season from Week 7 to Week 15:

  • 14.9 PPR points per game (eighth among running backs)
  • 6 total touchdowns (tied for third)
  • 2.14 yards per route run (third, per Pro Football Focus)

The 28-year-old scored a touchdown on four of his seven rush attempts inside the five-yard line in 2017 and is the clear favorite for goal-line duties if the Pats ultimately decide to exclude Hill from the equation.

Regardless of Hill’s eventual role, Burkhead figures to see plenty of action thanks to his ability to thrive as a wide receiver. He joins Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey as the league’s only projected started running backs who worked from the slot or out wide on at least 15% of their snaps in 2017.

Projected Week 1 role: Starter and part-time slot receiver


Sony Michel

Michel emerged as one of college football’s brightest stars in two games against a cast of future pros during the College Football Playoff.

Michel was fantastic during the rest of his career as well, averaging 1,058.5 total yards and 9.8 touchdowns per season in four years at Georgia. The electric 23-year-old averaged an absurd 7.9 yards per carry as a senior and certainly looks the part of the next great Patriots’ dual-threat running back.

His only problems are durability and ball security. The rookie’s bone-on-bone condition in his knee contributed to his small draft-day fall, and he’s already missed practice time after getting his knee drained earlier in August. Additionally, Michel averaged a fumble every 54.6 touches in college, good for the second-highest rate in the 2018 draft class (per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler).

Of course, the Patriots didn’t draft Michel to sit on the bench. His ability to thrive as both a rusher and receiver would fit well in the Dion Lewis role, which yielded an average of 13.3 touches per game last season. Be sure to monitor our Injury Dashboard to track Michel’s practice participation and game status throughout the week.

Projected Week 1 role: Contributor capable of spelling both Burkhead/White; could see limited touches if not 100%


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James White

White has the most secure role on the Patriots considering he’s worked as the pass-down and two-minute back for the better part of the last three seasons. The league hasn’t found a way to slow down the space back just yet, as White has ranked among the top-20 backs in yards per route run in each of the past three seasons.

The Patriots haven’t been afraid to utilize White as a receiver during his career, and he spent a robust 21% of his snaps in the slot or as a true wide receiver in 2017. Unsurprisingly, White has thrived with Edelman sidelined during the past three seasons.

  • With Edelman (21 games): 8.5 PPG, 4.6 targets, 3.2 receptions, 29 receiving yards, 0.2 TDs
  • Without (21 games): 11.5 PPG, 5.5 targets, 4.2 receptions, 37.2 receiving yards, 0.3 TDs

Big Game James has been particularly effective in Foxborough over the past three seasons: Per our NFL Trends tool, he’s averaged an additional 2.2 PPR points per game with a +3.3 Plus/Minus and a 63% Consistency Rating at home since 2015 – all while carrying reduced ownership.

Projected Week 1 role: Pass-down and two-minute back


Jeremy Hill

Hill won his training-camp battle with Gillislee, but it remains to be seen what this means for his Week 1 role. On the one hand, nobody else in the Patriots running back room has found the end zone as often as Hill …

Past production obviously doesn’t guarantee Hill anything entering the 2018 season, but the 6-foot-1, 233-pound bowling ball has consistently served as an effective goal-line back throughout his career: Hill has converted 20 of his 39 rushes (51.3%) inside the five-yard line into touchdowns since entering the league in 2014 (league average is 44%).

The high-scoring nature of any Brady-led offense has typically provided fruitful short-yardage touchdown situations for his power back. The Patriots join the Panthers and Saints as the only teams in the league that have averaged double-digit rushing touchdowns inside the five-yard line over the past three seasons.

Burkhead, Michel and White are each capable inside rushers who don’t necessarily warrant a vulture-like presence on the game-day roster. Still, Hill’s demonstrated a scoring ability, and his size and 2018 preseason special teams usage seems to indicate the Patriots are at least considering handing the 25-year-old an early down and/or short-yardage role.

Projected Week 1 role: Goal-line back plus room for additional carries with positive game script.


Be sure to check out our industry-leading NFL News and Models, along with our Multi-Lineup Builder, Stack builder, ownership projections and more. Also, make sure to check out our other tools for the 2018 season, including the Matchups pageDFS Contests DashboardNFL Ownership page, and NFL Correlations page.

Credit:

Dec 3, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) runs the ball wide during the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Follow Ian Hartitz on Twitter
@IHartitz
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