*Insert over-used “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” reference here.* (Go ahead and even sing it in your head, if you want.)
FOOTBALL IS BACK, BABY!
The Patriots officially kicked off training camp in Foxborough today, and per usual there are plenty of storylines to get to.
But this year feels a little bit different. Instead of focusing on positional battles or guessing which player you’ll invest a high fantasy draft pick on only to see Belichick bury them on the bottom of the depth chart before the first leaves even change color (see: Dobson, Aaron; Gillislee, Mike; Ochocinco, Chad; Ridley, Stevan; Taylor, Fred), people seem to be much more concerned with how much “fun” the team is having, how “mean” Belichick really is, or why Tom Brady doesn’t eat tomatoes (no, but really, he doesn’t).
This entire offseason has felt like an episode of General Hospital, and I’m honestly done with all the soap opera bullshit. I’m just ready to watch some good action on the gridiron.
Here’s the first of a weekly series from The 300s focusing on actual football-related issues pertaining to Brady & Co. before Christmas finally arrives on Sunday, September 9:
Sexy Rexy vs. the New Kid: Who Ya Got?
The Pats surprised a lot of people in May when they selected former Georgia stud running back Sony Michel with the 31st pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Sure, Dion Lewis – who totaled over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns last season – had signed with the Titans two months before, but the team still had Rex Burkhead, James White, and Mike Gillislee, the last of whom people thought maybe (JUST MAYBE) could have a bounce-back season after the Pats signed him to a two-year, $6.4 million deal last summer. (OK, I know most people forgot Gillislee was even on the team, but let’s not forget that this was a guy who averaged just under six yards a carry and scored 12 total touchdowns from 2015-2016 as a backup to LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. He also had 98 carries for the Pats through the first eight weeks of last season before being banished to the bench for the rest of the year, save for six carries in Week 16 against Buffalo. He’s most likely going to be cut unless he has a monster camp, but he’s really not a bad player and should re-emerge somewhere throughout the league this season.)
Nevertheless, Belichick and McDaniels saw something in the 23-year-old Michel, who finally signed his rookie deal on Monday and looks primed for a feature role in the offense.
But wait a minute, Mattes, what about Burkhead – who had eight touchdowns in 10 games last season – and White – the loveable, reliable pass-catching specialist who got robbed of a Super Bowl MVP award against the Falcons two years ago? (Sorry, Tom, but White was absolutely the MVP of that Super Bowl. Period.)
First and foremost, White’s role is locked in, and regardless of whether or not the Pats took Michel this past spring, not much is set to change for him. He’s still going to get the bulk of the targets out of the backfield, finish with 50-70 catches, and serve as the emergency ball-carrier in the event Burkhead and/or Michel go down.
But what about Burkhead?
After signing with the team as a free agent last summer, Burkhead played in just 12.3% and 10.5% of the team’s offensive snaps, respectively, through the first two games of the season before sitting out the next four games due to injury. However, after returning against the Falcons in Week 7, Burkhead played in about a third of the team’s offensive snaps the rest of the way, ultimately becoming the team’s main goal-line back and secondary pass-catcher out of the backfield – before missing the team’s final two games of the season, again due to injury.
So while durability issues may be a bit of concern for Burkhead, there is no doubt that he is a true all-around threat at the running back position. And after re-signing with the team yet again this offseason, the coaching staff obviously plans to use him.
Sooooo where does that leave Michel?
Well, no team in their right mind is going to use a first-round pick on a running back only to have him ride the pine for the majority of his rookie season. We may see this happen with quarterbacks, even more so in recent years, but first-round picks are not spent on running backs unless the team believes they can handle the rock right away. Michel is going to get his.
Even with Burkhead in the fold last year, Lewis still received the lion’s share of the playing time in the backfield, averaging exactly 15 carries per game over the team’s final 10 contests. He also hauled in 25 catches over that same stretch.
There were also five instances last season where both Burkhead and Lewis each surpassed 50 total yards in the same game, demonstrating that the Pats, much like the vast majority of the NFL, are furthering the belief that the days of a bell-cow back are truly coming to an end. (OK, sorry, I see you Le’Veon Bell. You’re a freakin’ machine. OK??)
Also, while there is no doubt that Michel was an absolute FORCE to be reckoned with at the college level – 1,227 rushing yards, 17 total touchdowns, and an out-of-this-world 7.9 yards per carry average (WHAT??!!) last season – he was never truly a bell-cow back himself. Michel only exceeded 156 carries in a season one time in four seasons, and he actually shared a feature role in Georgia’s backfield for the past few years with fellow NFL rookie and Cleveland Browns second-round pick Nick Chubb. He also averaged just 16 receptions per year as a Bulldog, so he is no threat to White’s status either.
Now, I’m not trying to make it seem as though I’m not absolutely amped to see this kid play. (Again, he averaged SEVEN-POINT-EFFING-NINE YARDS PER CARRY last year against the toughest conference in the country.) I’m just saying that people need to temper expectations if they expect him to be the next Zeke Elliott or Leonard Fournette.
Editor’s note: AJ Green begs to differ:
It should also be noted that since 2004, only three guys – BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2010), Stevan Ridley (2012), and LeGarrette Blount (2016) – have toted the rock more than 200 times in a season for the Pats, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change this season.
While it’s often an exercise in futility to try and predict exactly what Belichick and McDaniels are going to do in any scenario, I am still going to provide you with my completely meaningless 2018 stat prediction for the Pats three-headed monster at running back:
- Rex Burkhead: 141 carries; 544 yards; 42 catches; 382 yards; 10 total touchdowns
- Sony Michel: 192 carries; 839 yards; 11 catches; 45 yards; 7 total touchdowns
- James White: 55 carries; 205 yards; 61 catches; 510 yards; 4 total touchdowns
All I know is, Belichick knows how to use running backs of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors; he’s proven it throughout his career. Not since the days of Clock Killin’ Corey Dillon has Bill invested his entire stock into one running back, and he both understands and appreciates the value of having multiple guys who can carry the load.
So no matter what happens, it’s nice to know the Pats shouldn’t be in dire straits without Lewis this season, and it’ll be fun to watch how it all shakes out.
Be sure to check in with The 300s next week for Part 2 of the series!