New England has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.
With almost 28 backs on the roster, New England's running game is a big unknown. Veterans Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee, and Jeremy Hill have produced in the past when given the opportunity. Sony Michel was selected in the first round, so it would be reasonable to expect the Patriots to want to get that much draft capital on the field. Can all five of these players even make the 53-man roster?
Chad Parsons: The value play is Rex Burkhead, a two-way sturdy option which fits well with keeping the Patriots multiple on offense. At this point, we know what James White is, which is limited to what-the-heck-flex consideration weekly. Jeremy Hill is interesting from a reclamation project standpoint as New England has fostered in the past. If he makes the roster, consider him in final roster spots in leagues of depth beyond the typical sub-20-player rosters for 2018.
The elephant in the room is the incoming rookie and first-round pick Sony Michel. By his profile Michel was overdrafted, fitting more as a mid-Day 2 pick than up in the first round. Michel. Coincidentally, Michel's middle ground comparable prospect is Shane Vereen, a former Patriots selection. Cost is key with Michel and his RB3 price point is palatable especially for owners drafting two or three backs before Michel is an upside option on the bench. The concern is Rex Burkhead (or Mike Gillislee or Jeremy Hill) siphoning short-range touchdowns from Michel and James White soaking up receptions. Considering the Patriots' track record, both are reasonable possibilities despite the draft capital investment in Sony Michel for the long term.
Jeff Tefertiller: I like Michel best of the backs for weekly lineups. The others have best-ball potential. I do not expect Burkhead to continue his touchdown rate from last year as some regression should be expected.
Daniel Simpkins: I took a deep dive on this backfield for another piece I did at Footballguys that was enlightening. The Patriots get a bad rap for not knowing which running back will be utilized from week to week, but the truth is that for most of 2017, we knew which one to start. After Week 1 of last year, it was apparent Mike Gillislee was the play. When he faded, we could see his touches diminish and Dion Lewis’ steadily trend upward. From Week 5 on, Lewis led the way and didn’t look back. That said, we still need to know which of these backs is going to lead the way. Let’s not assume that’s going to be Sony Michel off the bat, despite the first round pedigree. Bill Belichick hates a fumbler, and Michel put it on the ground a few times in organized team activities. If he continues to struggle in camp, fantasy owners need to take a closer look at Rex Burkhead. The team showed a willingness to use him more before his injury occurred last year. Like Dion Lewis before him, he has the ability to both catch well and run between the tackles. He’s very affordable and like Lewis was last year, he could be a season winner for you.
Ryan Hester: Daniel pointed out that Belichick doesn't like fumblers. But what does Belichick value more than anything else? Versatility. The closest thing to a Swiss Army knife on this team is the player who started the year running routes from the slot and ended the season as the goal-line back. He even blocked a punt at one point.
Burkhead is the player to own in this backfield, and the best part about it is that he's being drafted after Michel. Our Jason Wood wrote a Spotlight on Michel earlier this month. In that piece, Jason touched on some key topics. Those include New England's history with rookies, Michel taking Lewis' role, and how Burkhead's injuries translated to Lewis' success.
Projecting Michel to absorb Lewis' role would justify his current RB2 draft position. However, doing so without considering Burkhead is foolish. When White is on the field, it's a sign that the play will likely be a pass. Is the team going to let Michel play passing downs and trust him to block for Tom Brady?
Burkhead provides New England with its best option to do what it wants to do -- run no-huddle, tempo offense where personnel packages offer no indication to the upcoming play type. Hill isn't even worth considering at this point.
Andy Hicks: The Patriots are the best team at playing weekly matchups in the NFL. That makes the job of sorting out the best back to carry fantasy owners hopes a little more difficult in such a crowded and talented backfield. The obvious choice is first-round rookie Sony Michel, but he comes with the highest price for fantasy owners too. Would it genuinely surprise anyone if his play was minimal and the best options came from Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee?
Others have made a compelling argument that the Patriots can stick to one lead back until they are replaced for a reason, but despite watching the mastery of Belichick in action it will be difficult to have confidence in any of these backs for fantasy purposes. Tread carefully. Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee looked better on the Patriots than they did for their former teams, same with Dion Lewis. Jeremy Hill looked awful running for the Bengals. Maybe he improves like the other three did. His cost is basically nothing and little is expected of him.
Devin Knotts: I don't see Sony Michel having much of a role on this team immediately at all. History has shown us that it takes a while for the Patriots to trust a running back and I expect Sony Michel to have a Stevan Ridley first two years where he does not play much his first year and has a tremendous year his second year. Are they really going to have a rookie running back blocking for a 41-year-old Tom Brady?
James White is the guy I will have the most of this season as I believe he has the safest role with decent upside. White has 70 catch upside this season. Before Dion Lewis took over in New England, in weeks 1-5 James White averaged 7 targets per game in the passing game catching 29 of 35 targets.
Jason Wood: As Ryan kindly pointed out, I dove deep into Sony Michel earlier this preseason and found it hard to get excited. That's in spite of Michel ranking #2 in my dynasty rookie rankings. Very few Patriots running backs deliver RB2 (much less RB1) value historically. Rex Burkhead has the second-best per-game average but it's a tiny sample size. In spite of the small sample size, why would Bill Belichick reduce Burkhead's role when he's been so effective in his opportunities? Ultimately, as boring as it may be, a committee approach with wide variance week-to-week is the logical outcome.
Hester: Jason, we’re in lockstep with everything related to Michel, but this last sentence might be too dismissive of the backfield as a whole. While it will be a committee with variance, it could be a predictable committee with a high ceiling too - especially if you discount Michel’s predicted contributions.
Burkhead allows New England to play with the most versatility, something the smartest tactical team in the NFL values. And the “ground guy” in this running game has always been a valuable asset. When the team is heavily-favored against a weak opponent, the touchdown equity is attractive. And Burkhead earned the goal line role late last year before his second injury of the year.
Fantasy GMs should draft Burkhead as though Michel won’t have more than a complementary role. If that ends up being wrong, many fantasy championships have been won despite a bust or from the middle rounds. It’s a calculated risk worth taking.
Phil Alexander: Sigmund Bloom had the right idea in his AFC Backfield Study.
The pie in New England's backfield is large enough -- and the current ADPs of Michel, Burkhead, and White affordable enough -- that you should prioritize coming away with at least one Patriots running back in your draft.
Michel has taken some heat in this chat for his ability to protect Tom Brady, but he was widely considered the best pass-blocking running back in this year's rookie class. New England has succeeded with little more than other teams' running back rejects for so long, Belichick spending a first-round pick at the position should have our attention. Michel will be involved -- at least to the extent Lewis was last year when Burkhead was healthy (12-14 touches per game). Given his pedigree and the context of the Patriots offense, those touches carry more value than players with similar workload projections being drafted in Michel's tier.
The others have already made the case Burkhead is a steal at his current ADP. Even if he wasn't useful out of the slot (he is) and Julian Edelman wasn't going to miss four games (he is), Burkhead is being taken too low by virtue of his touchdown potential. Rumor has it Burkhead is the favorite for goal-line work in New England, which puts him in the catbird seat for fantasy purposes. Since Belichick took over as head coach, the Patriots lead the league in touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line by 13% over the next closest team. Good luck finding another running back who realistically can lead the league in rushing touchdowns where Burkhead is being drafted.
Matt Waldman: Let’s not confuse Sony Michel for Kareem Hunt in the pass protection department. Michel demonstrated a high aptitude for various types of blocks and blitz reads with assignments ranging from defensive backs to defensive linemen. His stand-up game is better than the best rookie pass protector I graded entering last year’s class, Jamaal Williams, who, by the way, didn’t dissuade the Packers from using him to protect Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is faster than Brady, but Brady is one of the most functionally mobile quarterbacks of his generation.
The fumbling problem is a genuine issue. This is Michel’s potential career-crisis flaw.
The fascinating thing is that we have an understanding that Bill Belichick runs the draft in New England and that the Patriots have never drafted a back this high under Belichick.
We’ve certainly seen that Belichick and his team make mistakes on draft day. However, there is this possibility that he saw a player in Michel who is capable of consolidating his depth chart. After all, personnel versatility makes an offense less predictable. Michel had those skills.
Just as Nick Chubb gets mislabeled due to the roles UGA assigned him and Michel, Michel has power and balance. If Michel limits his fumbles, he’ll get an opportunity to earn the majority of snaps.
I am not counting on the fumbling to improve that fast. Then again, Alvin Kamara fumbled in college as much as Wood reads comics and did an excellent job protecting the ball in New Orleans.
Bob Henry: Here is how I'm breaking down the Patriots backfield from the lens of doing projections and each player's skill set and role.
I actually just decreased my projections for Jeremy Hill. I don't think he is better in any way in any capacity than Burkhead, Michel, or even Gillislee. I'm not sure Hill even makes the roster, to be frank. White's role is essentially defined. Michel has heavy draft investment and projects, in my mind, as a true three-down back much like Burkhead - leaving Hill as an injury fill-in at best. If he's not discernibly better than Gillislee, he's cut. In fact, both could be gone with the ever-so-sticky special teamer Brandon Bolden sticking as the RB4 over both. Hills offers nothing on special teams and very little on passing downs. He has to be clearly better than the others on early downs or short-yardage and I don't think that's the case at all.
Rex Burkhead is the best value. He's already shown the ability as a touchdown vulture in this backfield and the Patriots' running backs have scored 20, 23, and 25 touchdowns over the last three years. I have them with 22.5 touchdowns, currently. Burkhead had 8 over 10 games last year, while Lewis had 9 and GIllislee 4. Burkhead will fill that gap with Michel grabbing the rest. Michel scored a touchdown every 10 touches last year at Georgia with epic efficiency. If anything, I might be low on Michel's touchdowns with nine total, but he also has fumbling concerns (a big caveat for a Belichick running back). My edge here goes to Burkhead, who knows the offense and he seems to have the most trust from the coaches.
One thing to ponder - with Edelman out - could Burkhead be even more of a surprise/value? Recall that he has experience playing slot WR in Cincinnati and he's arguably the most versatile player on the offense after Edelman. It wouldn't surprise me to see him fill that void and catch upwards of 50 to 60 passes this year with Jordan Matthews ultimately disappointing. Burkhead and Michel could then both see the field more - even at the same time.
Perhaps my thinking is further on the alternative, non-realistic axis, but it's one that I'm putting out there as food for thought.
Wood: To Ryan's point, my comments about the wide variance were unintentionally dismissive. In a world where No. 2 fantasy running backs end the season with a half-dozen touchdowns and 1,000 yards from scrimmage if they’re lucky, both Burkhead and Michel should be rostered and will be in plenty of lineups as flex plays or bye week starters. I also have increasingly warmed to Rex Burkhead for many of the reasons put forth by my colleagues. He’s starting to project as a No. 2 fantasy back as I update my projections.
Hester: Hooray for warming!