Free Agency Roundtable: The New England Backfield

Eavesdrop as various staff members share their views on the 2017 free agency period.

With the dust settled on the first wave of NFL free agency, a group of our staffers got together to discuss the most pressing topics. In this second installment, they tackle the New England backfield in the wake of the Rex Burkhead signing.

Trying to figure out the New England Patriots backfield on a week-to-week basis has been a fantasy headache since the Corey Dillon era. Now LeGarrette Blount is presumably moving on, and the Pats made Rex Burkhead their first running back since Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor to receive more than $2 million in a season. Does Burkhead’s contract make him the fantasy back to own in New England, or are we looking at another frustrating committee?

Devin Knotts: Burkhead is a nice pass protection back, but has yet to prove himself as a legitimate NFL running back. LeGarrette Blount was terrific last season as the Patriots “big back”, but I don’t think we should expect to see Burkhead fill that role. Burkhead is a terrific special teams player, and should contribute there plenty this season.

Do not let the contract fool you. The Patriots have plenty of cap space, and ultimately can save a roster spot by carrying Burkhead due to his versatility. Expect them to go back to their approach from 2013-2015, when no running back had over 200 carries.

Phil Alexander: I've got to admit, I don’t have a strong answer here and I’m genuinely curious to find out what the group thinks. Devin made a great point about Burkhead's special teams ability offering the Pats added roster flexibility. I hadn’t thought of that, and it could help justify his somewhat surprising contract. For my own part, I haven’t seen enough of Burkhead to decide if he’s more than just a committee back. At least he measured well at the 2013 scouting combine (4.73 40-time notwithstanding) and he crushed when given a full workload in a meaningless Week 17 game vs. Baltimore last season (27-119-2). That’s a start, I guess.

Jason Wood: Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. This is a situation to avoid. I'm mystified the Patriots are letting Blount walk given his phenomenal production, but it appears Belichick is going for a committee of versatile, do-everything backs in lieu of counting on the big bruiser. I agree with Devin that you don't want to overthink matters and turn Burkhead into something he's not. Let's not forget that Dion Lewis was a top 10 fantasy back before getting hurt two seasons ago. And let's also not forget that James White had arguably the best offensive performance in Super Bowl history. Both are capable of dynamic, jaw-dropping fantasy weeks.

Phil Alexander: I’m glad Jason brought up Lewis. If there’s one reason it’s doubtful Burkhead was brought in to lead this committee, Lewis is it. My gut says New England would like to get him about 15 total touches per game (he averaged 16.6 touches per game over the final three games of 2016), which leaves room for around 8-10 touches per game for Burkhead, with the scraps going to White.

Alessandro Miglio: We've waded back to the days when Bill Belichick toyed with fantasy owners at running back. It was a nice run for one season. Dealing with a New England back could be a minefield this year. But among the available options, I also like Lewis for both potential and value. Good luck getting him into your lineup on the weeks when he goes off, though.

It's easy to forget Lewis was coming back from a torn ACL last season when he finally joined the team. He didn't make much fantasy noise because his usage seemed sporadic, but coming back from that injury in the middle of the season while other running backs are enjoying success tends to put a dent in your fantasy production. Hopefully he can stay healthy -- it was his second torn ACL in recent history -- and on the field, because Lewis is the most dynamic back the Patriots have.

David Dodds: New England's signing of Burkhead (while apparently parting ways with Blount) shows the offense New England plans to run in 2017. Last year, the offense looked stagnant when Blount was on the field. They used him to milk the clock and pound in touchdowns, but it was clear the offense looked it's best when James White or Dion Lewis were in the game. Rex Burkhead adds yet another running back that has pass catching ability. This should allow New England to play no-huddle football anytime they need (or want) to even if Lewis or White get injured. Burkhead also gives New England a vital returner which allows the team to bolster their 54 man roster in other ways.

It’s not a given that Burkhead is the de facto starting RB on this squad. I suspect he is just one interchangeable piece to the RBBC Belichick plans to run in 2017.

Andy Hicks: It really is fascinating to see how Belichick is playing this. All three backs on the roster are mid-to-late round draft picks (only one by the Patriots), picked between 130th and 190th overall. They’re all in their mid-twenties, and all in the final (or only) year of their contract. None of them should be expected to carry the load full time. It is also conceivable Burkhead may not even make the final roster if he isn't what the coaching staff expected.

To earn 65% of his contract, he would need to be on the roster once the season starts. At this stage, I would expect Burkhead to get a higher share of the carries, but as Alex alluded to, the Patriots haven't finished with this mix yet. There are very good backs still available in free agency, as well as in the draft coming up.

Phil Alexander: Whether the Patriots bring in another back, or they go into the season with these three, someone wearing a New England jersey stands to inherit the most lucrative goal line role in fantasy football. Since Belichick took over as Patriots head coach in 2000, New England has scored 294 rushing touchdowns from inside their opponent's 5-yard line, which leads the league by more than 12% over the next closest team (New Orleans). Burkhead, Lewis, and White aren’t exactly pile pushers, which makes me think Andy is onto something. I’m fully expecting the Patriots to add another running back in the second wave of free agency or the draft.

Chad Parsons: Agreed, Phil. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots brought in a bigger, more traditional power back via the draft or a later signing. As for the backs currently on the roster, I think we’ll need an injury for value to open up. New England running backs are at their best for fantasy when at least one is out with an injury, creating short-term forced clarity for weekly usage and roles. With three viable pass-catchers in place, projecting receptions will be near impossible. This is going to be a headache for as long as all these guys are healthy.

Jeff Haseley: Great point, Chad. The real value for these backs will come when one or two find themselves on the injury report and are inactive for a stretch. The remaining healthy back is likely to be a fantasy gem that week. Relying on injuries isn't a great strategy, but if you happen to stumble into the right back at the right time, more power to you.

Chris Feery: As the others have alluded to, the Patriots backfield shapes up to be as frustrating as ever for fantasy purposes in 2017. This is clearly a RBBC situation that will be game plan dependent. There’s a pretty good chance that translates into plenty of wins for the Patriots, but what that means for actual fantasy production will change on a week-to-week basis. Barring injury or one of the trio becoming afflicted with the case of the dropsies, selecting a Patriots running back at this point amounts to a crapshoot.

Since the signing, Burkhead has been selected as high as the fifth round of MFL10 (best ball) leagues. Are you touching him at that ADP? Do any of New England’s backs interest you for 2017?

Phil Alexander: Talking ADP this time of year is about as useless as a white crayon, but we'll be looking back on Burkhead in the fifth as patently absurd in very short order.

Alessandro Miglio: The fifth round is insane any time of the year for Rex Burkhead. I like Lewis a bit, but would value him much higher in PPR leagues, and I wouldn't necessarily take any Patriots back in the first several rounds of a draft. As others have said, another back could be joining this mix via the draft. Christian McCaffrey anyone?

David Dodds: I will likely be avoiding all of the New England RBs in redraft leagues, but agree some could have great games if one of the three gets hurt.

Mark Wimer: I plan on avoiding the Patriot's 2017 backfield like the plague. Coach Belichick likes to keep opposing defensive coordinators guessing about who will be featured in any given game, which is sheer torture for fantasy owners on a week to week basis. Add in the Patriots' legendary coyness/obfuscation about the injury situations of their players, and the uncertainty that fantasy owners will face about this committee is off the charts.

There will be some dramatic fantasy output from one or another of the backs in any given game, but figuring out which running back is in line for the blockbuster game will drive fantasy owners mad throughout 2017.

Chad Parsons: Patriots running backs are synonymous with best ball in my book. At a minimum, it takes a deep format to be comfortable week-to-week rolling out their running backs. Burkhead offers more interior chops than Lewis or White, but a more well-rounded skillset than Blount to keep play-calling flexible for his snaps. In dynasty leagues, Burkhead has pushed inside the late Round 2 or early Round 3 rookie pick zone, which is too pricey for my taste.

Will Grant: Don't let the MFL10 drafts convince you that Burkhead is worth a fifth round pick. Remember that MFL10 is best ball auto-start. New England backs have better value in those leagues because you don't have to guess who is going to be this week's top back.

If you're talking just season long picks, I don't think Burkhead is going anywhere near the fifth round. Being completely honest, I think taking him in the fifth is still really high given his potential to have down weeks in the Patriot backfield.

Unless you are in a best-ball league, or have back-to-back picks on a turn and can get them after the 8th round, I think the New England backfield is more pain than it's worth.

Justin Howe: I agree with Phil and Miglio - that's an absurd ADP for any Patriots back right now. Even if they'd locked up LeGarrette Blount this offseason, I wouldn't pay a fifth for him. That's especially true of Burkhead, a special-teamer and sparkplug who will probably fill a "jack of all trades, master of none" role for Belichick. I'm certainly not paying market price to assume he's the next Danny Woodhead; that's more of an absolute best-case scenario I'd roll the dice for in Rounds 10-12. This is an offense designed to piece together scraps of talent and contribution from many backs; essentially, whichever ones are healthiest this week.

Will is also correct, in that the Patriots backfield is plenty valuable in best-ball formats. They'll always produce, whether in expected or unexpected situations, and holding the group as a whole is a script-agnostic asset. As long as their ADPs stay sound, I'd be loading up on every Patriots back not named Burkhead. If Burkhead keeps drawing this kind of attention, I could stack Dion Lewis (RB39), James White (RB50), and D.J. Foster (outside RB70 or so) and roster a RB3 or better nearly every week.

Chris Feery: Of the three, I would lean towards Lewis - especially in  PPR formats - but I’ll likely be avoiding all of them in redraft leagues. Best ball is a different story. I’m more than happy to take a flier on any of them at a reasonable price.

Jeff Haseley: I agree with what the others have mentioned - avoid Patriots backs in drafts. There are too many question marks with three capable backs who could have a big fantasy performance in any given week. Dion Lewis may wind up being the top PPR back in New England this year, but White and Burkhead are very much part of the equation.

Like the guys said, best ball league format with Patriots backs is a different story because when they do produce, you'll reap the benefits and not have to worry about making the right decision for your lineup.  

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