Making sense of the Patriots fantasy running backs

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Sometime in the very near future...

"Taupe really is soothing," I say to myself as I sit in the waiting room staring with mild curiosity at a curled and aging copy of People. It could be the hue of the paint that has my anxiety subsiding. Or it could be Hall and Oates crooning "Sara Smile" over the embedded ceiling speakers. Before I can come to a conclusion, a door opens and a petite woman with silver hair calls my name.

I follow her down a long hallway into an unfinished room populated with an overstuffed purple couch and a desk that likely came shipped in box with the warning of "some assembly required." I drop heavily onto the sofa and hug the plush red pillow tossed lazily against one of the arm rests. She sits across from me in an old, forest green armchair that's certainly seen better days.

"Talk to me, Marcas. How are you feeling?"

"To be honest, Doc ... not great. It's like I'm drowning and everyone around me either blames me for my own suffering or endures the same fate when they try to help me."

"When did these feelings begin?"

"It was probably right about the time I wrote a piece trying to sort out the Patriots running backs.

This is the story of one man's descent into fantasy madness.

Start at the starter


The idea for this piece began as a rebuttal to the igniting rocket that had been Mike Gillislee's rising ADP. Since then, a balky hamstring has kept Gillislee off the field and short-circuited his ascent. Nonetheless, it seemed like a good idea to take a deeper look at one of fantasy football's most enigmatic running back corps.

For the past few seasons, I've been fond of saying that opportunity is the lifeblood of fantasy success. I've also repeatedly reminded everyone that Bill Belichick hates your fantasy team. While those are two opposing statements, there is some clarity to be found in the space between ... and it's often as simple as seeing who sits atop the depth chart.

Going back through the past five seasons, the Patriots have only had two backs amass more than 200 carries -- LeGarrette Blount (299 in 2016) and Stevan Ridley (290 in 2012). This is how we've arrived at the trite "Belichick plays everyone. Avoid all Pats running backs!" It's a theory that I might have even peddled a time or two myself on a certain popular microblogging website.

But I'm here to tell you that we were looking at this wrong. The Patriots like to use their running backs. As Chris Raybon of 4for4 writes, New England has been in the top six of running back fantasy points scored in four of the past five seasons. Given his druthers (which is probably better than being given someone else's druthers), Belichick would rather have one primary back who sees most of the work.

Super Bowl winning head coaches ... they're just like us!

But if we're going to demystify the mystical, let's take a trip back into time.

2012: Having just parted ways with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots elevated Stevan Ridley to the starting slot after he began earning more work in the offense near the end of his rookie season. Ridley took advantage of the situation, starting 12 games, earning 44 percent of the running back snaps and 24 percent of the carries. The end result? 1,314 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns.

2013: Ridley was on track to again be a workhorse in 2013 until he spit the bit ... repeatedly. His fumble in the second half of the season opener got him benched in Week 1. His continued fumbling issues led to Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount getting their turns as starting running backs (Ridley was eventually a healthy scratch in favor of Bolden in Week 13). Turns out Bill Belichick doesn't necessarily hate our fantasy teams. He just hates turnovers. Though he probably still isn't a fan of our fantasy teams.

2014: Having apparently atoned for his fumbleitis of the previous seasons, Ridley was re-installed atop the depth chart and started five of the six games, picking up nearly a quarter of the team's carries during that stretch. That all ended with a severe knee injury in Week 6. From there, a combination of Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray, and LeGarrette Blount divvied up the starting duties.

2015: This season was RB Armaggedon for the Patriots (RB-mageddon?). Dion Lewis had the look a man set to destroy #Belitricks. Through the first five weeks of the season, he was the RB10 (and that's with the Pats having a bye in Week 4). In Week 6, disaster struck. An abdomen injury forced him to miss a game. Several weeks later, a knee injury put him on injured reserve. The combination of Blount and Bolden picked up the slack, though Blount eventually landed on IR with a hip injury of his own.

2016: Everyone hoped Lewis could return to form but he wouldn't be seen in a game until November. In the interim, Blount became the starter with James White handling the third down and pass-catching duties. With no real challengers for snaps, Blount dominated the team's rushing attempts on his way to a career season.

So see, it's not so hard to figure out which Patriots back to start. Just pick the one who starts.

"Okay, smart guy ... what does that mean for 2017?"

Oh. Um...

Reading the tea leaves


Admittedly, this is where is gets tricky. Depending on the day, there has been a new name sitting atop the depth chart. We've gone from Brandon Bolden to James White to Dion Lewis. Next week, Mike Gillislee's hamstring could get some first team reps.

That leaves us with an elimination process to add some clarity. Bill Belchick has shown that he's not averse to putting two of his backs on the field at the same time. More than one-third of the team's offensive snaps last season featured two running backs in the formation. But with Lewis and White (who, as I write this are the listed starters) occupying such similar roles in the offense, it's unlikely that both of them will be on the field together.

Even at their most productive, neither player was exactly dominating in touches per game. So we can probably eliminate White. His high-water mark came last season when he averaged just over six touches per game. Unless he's breaking off 20-yard plays every other time he touches the ball, there just isn't much value there.

That brings us to Rex Burkhead. He made a whole lot of friends in the fantasy community late last season thanks to a strong finish with the Bengals. Alas, it took more than 10 games and a season-ending injury to Giovani Bernard for Burkhead to find any space in Cincy's atmosphere. Through it all, he's entering his fifth season in the league and has a grand total of 87 carries and 34 receptions. His spot on the roster appears safe but talk of him possibly having a "nice role" isn't the sort of thing to inspire you to place your fantasy fortunes in his hands.

We could talk about Brandon Bolden but after five seasons with the Patriots, he's never risen above the level of a stopgap option for Bill Belichick. There's no reason to think that changes now.

Time being a flat circle and all, we end at the beginning with Mike Gillislee. The hamstring injury has kept him off the field for a significant portion of training camp. For the moment, he's slated to fill the role left vacant by Blount ... which includes plenty of goal line work. Probably not 18 rushing touchdowns worth of goal line work. But still a lot.

Realistically, whoever takes the lead in this backfield is in line for somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 carries. Depending on what that player does with those carries, you could be looking at a potential low-end RB2.

What? You thought this whole thing was going to end with me declaring that the Patriots had a hidden top 10 running back gem lurking in training camp? Silly rabbit.

"Okay, smart guy. You still haven't told us which 2017 Patriots back we should be targeting."

Alright, fine. As we sit here today scratching our itchy brains over this, my Patriots pecking order looks like this...

  1. Mike Gillislee
  2. Dion Lewis
  3. Rex Burkhead
  4. James White/Brandon Bolden

Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Unless Burkhead takes the starting job. Then all bets are off. And I might need to think about booking a second weekly therapy session.

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Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man who strongly advocates taking occasional mental health breaks ... even if he doesn't always follow his own advice. Tweet him your tips for self-care @MarcasG. If you read all of that, congrats. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (marcasg9).

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