A Pre-Draft Look at the New England Patriots Backfield
Dissecting team needs for defending Super Bowl champions occasionally proves difficult.
However, the New England Patriots also lost Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner from their secondary, and with a multitude of running backs currently on the roster, running back may not actually be their most pressing need.
Questions do exist, though, about how the Patriots should approach their running back situation heading into 2015.
Twitter only allows for so few characters, and yet, I have such a pathetically vast amount of free time to devote to football debates.
So below, I will ask and attempt to answer each of the following questions:
1) Who are the running backs currently on the Patriots' roster?
2) Historically speaking, what is Bill Belichick’s running back strategy?
3) Which of these rostered running backs are most likely to be the starters next season?
4) Will the Patriots look to draft a running back within the next few days?
That's right, ladies and gentlemen, behold! As I am about to attempt the unimaginable.
I'm going to try to make sense of a Bill Belichick backfield.
A Crowded Backfield
With Vereen and Ridley both leaving for New York, the current running backs on the New England roster are the newly suspended LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet, Tyler Gaffney, Jonas Gray, Dion Lewis, James White, and fullback James Develin.
Can any of these players really make the impact necessary to help the Patriots defend their title?
Last year, Jonas Gray came from seemingly nowhere to being a Sports Illustrated cover athlete only to fade again into oblivion. He was a backup in college for his first three years, recording only 75 total caries. In his senior year, he split time with Cierre Wood at Notre Dame before tearing his ACL in the 11th game of the season. Gray went undrafted in 2012 and bounced around in the league without ever playing a snap before the Patriots picked him up in 2014.
In Week 8 of last season, his second game in the NFL, he performed surprisingly well, rushing for 86 yards on 17 carries. In Week 11 against the Colts, his fourth game in the NFL, he blew our freaking minds, posting a ridiculous 37-carry, 201-yard, 4-touchdown line. Adding to the legend that Bill Belichick hates fantasy football, Gray then went 20-80-1 while playing in just four of the season's final six games. The "over-sleeping practice" narrative aside, the major reason he fell off a cliff was because of LeGarrette Blount.
LeGarrette Blount had three straight 1,000-yard seasons in college before an on-field altercation resulted in a suspension for almost the entirety of his senior year. Blount went undrafted in 2010 (likely because of character issues), before eventually signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He would go on to earn the starting job that season and rush for more than 1,000 yards with a 5.0 yards per carry average.
The next year, across 14 games, he rushed for 781 yards on 184 attempts and caught 15 balls for 148 yards. The following season, the Buccaneers hired a new head coach in Greg Schiano and promptly drafted Doug Martin in the first round of that year's draft. Whether Blount was just outplayed by Martin or if Schiano specifically went out looking for a single bell-cow back who could catch out of the backfield, Blount lost his job as the starter while Martin ended the season just 74 yards shy of 2,000 all-purpose yards. The next season, Schiano traded Blount to his good buddy, Bill Belichick.
Blount went on to run for 772 yards on 153 attempts for a 5.0 yards per carry average with the Patriots in 2013. He performed exceedingly well in the playoffs, turning 29 carries into 172 yards and 4 touchdowns across two games. That offseason he signed a two-year $3.85 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Blount's first three games with the Steelers, he managed an impressive 132 yards on 17 carries with 2 touchdowns. From there, with the steady rise of lead-back Le'Veon Bell it became obvious Blount would again be relegated to a back-up role. Frustrated with his declining workload, Blount walked off the field in the middle of the Steeler's Week 11 win over the Titans. Understandably, he was promptly cut by head coach Mike Tomlin.
After clearing waivers, he was then signed to a $1.73 million, two-year contract by the Patriots. This spurred another wave of Patriots-related tampering conspiracy theories. Back on the Patriots, Blount immediately regained the starting position and went for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 60 carries throughout the rest of the regular season. He also helped lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory going 189 yards with 3 touchdowns on 47 attempts in the playoffs.
Travaris Cadet went undrafted in 2012 before signing with New Orleans. Through three seasons in the NFL he only has 11 career carries but performed particularly well last year in a receiving capacity with the Saints, catching 38 balls for 296 yards and a touchdown. After New Orleans declined to place tender on Cadet, last month, the Patriots signed him to a two-year contract.
James White was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of last year's draft but was inactive in all but three games of last season (including the Super Bowl). He garnered some buzz in training camp last Summer, taking significant reps in practice and having Bill commend him on his work in both the running and passing games. Bill would go on to say, "I think he has the ability to compete on all three downs." Though, in the end, he would only have 9 rushes for 38 yards and 5 receptions for 23 yards in three games.
Tyler Gaffney was drafted by the Panthers in the sixth round of last year's 2014 draft. He tore his meniscus in camp last July and was promptly cut and then signed by the Patriots off of waivers before getting placed on season-ending injured reserve. Belichick apparently "loves" him and would go on to praise him for being a hard worker who is fast, athletic, and catches the ball well out of the backfield.
When asked if he could take over the Shane Vereen role, Belichick said he is heavier than most Patriots receiving backs, but "We'll see how it goes. We kept him all year — active, then we put him on IR once we got to the 75 cut or whatever it was. We’re excited to work with Tyler." If Gaffney came out and earned a role as either the passing-down back or as the power-runner, it might surprise a lot of people, but after Belichick's flattering praise, he's on the radar.
The Bill Belichick Running Back Philosophy
Belichick has seemingly never been a fan of the complete or feature back role. Rather, he likes to utilize a smash-mouth power runner in conjunction with a smaller, more agile receiving back. We'd have to go all the way back to 2000, Belichick's first season as head coach of the Patriots, to find a time when one of his runners led the team in both rushing yards and receptions.
Since then he's found success in the tandems of Kevin Faulk and Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney, Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. While it seems the shelf life on any individual cog in each tandem is only about three years or so, the philosophy always seems to remain the same. Last year, the tandem was Shane Vereen and Ridley for the first six games, then Vereen and Jonas Gray for the next few, and finally Vereen and LeGarrette Blount for the final third of the season and playoffs.
Is the usage of these backs match-up dependent? It appears so. Last year, Vereen averaged only 2.4 catches per game when the Patriots rushed for more than 100 yards as a team and 4.4 catches per game when the team failed to rush for over 100 yards. In every game he caught at least five passes, the Patriots failed to rush for over 100 yards; he also had four of his five highest carry total games in each of those weeks.
In the playoffs, Vereen caught only three passes for 41 yards against the Colts (who ranked 16th in adjusted per-play rushing defense, according to our metrics last year) in the AFC championship game, but had 11 catches for 64 yards against the Seahawks (who ranked third) in the Super Bowl. Blount meanwhile ran for 148 yards on 30 attempts with 3 touchdowns against the Colts and then followed it up for just 40 yards on 14 attempts in the Super Bowl.
Defensive packages, too, seem to play a significant role in determining the usage of either back. Last year, 63% of Blount's carries came against a team's base defense, and in 2013, 70% of his carries came against the base. Conversely, 89% of Shane Vereen's carries came against the nickel or dime in 2014 and 90% of his carries were against those packages in 2013.
It seems likely based on recent history, that out of Belichick's backfield, two runners will take the bulk of the touches. One will be a downfield runner with power and size, the other will be slightly smaller, with greater speed between the tackles, and will take the bulk of his touches in nickel and dime packages.
The Best Fit
Typically, a power runner in Bill's scheme is roughly 5'11" and 220 pounds. This is the exact height and weight of BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, and Stevan Ridley. Only Corey Dillon failed to fit this mold, as he was two inches taller and five pounds heavier than the rest. The typical Bill Belichick pass-catching back is around 5"9" and 202.5 pounds. Neither Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, nor Shane Vereen failed to fall within an inch or three pounds of this profile. The forty times for both types of backs varied widely enough so as to not be considered very relevant.
Looking at the height and weight of former Belichick running back starters and current players on the roster, a few stick out.
Blount appears a little too heavy (250 pounds) to fit well into this profile, but his weight-adjusted forty time would have put him at the top of this group in terms of speed. Jonas Gray would be the shortest of the power backs (5"10"), but his weight (223) fits well within the range of power backs. Brandon Bolden fits best into into the profile at 5"11", 220 pounds, and with a 4.66 forty -- he ties Stevan Ridley in every category.
Going back to Tyler Gaffney, Bill's comments appear to be correct. He does seem to be a little bigger than the pass-catching backs he's used in the past, but does fit very well as a power-back at 6"0" and 220 pounds. With a 4.49 forty, he would have been the fastest of the bunch.
Travaris Cadet is someone who falls in the middle of both groups. At 6"1" he'd tower over previous pass-catching backs and at 210 he'd be slightly heavier as well, though he'd still weigh significantly less than most previous power backs. James White matches up extremely well with Shane Vereen, as both were 5"10" and 205 pounds, though Vereen ran a better forty by 0.08 seconds.
A Look At The Numbers
If we added Cadet and took out Ridley and Vereen, the Patriots' backfield has some interesting candidates, based on our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. Essentially, NEP tells us how many points -- real points -- a player adds or loses for his team based on expectation. It helps remove the flaws of traditional statistics, where a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 is worth the same as a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9. Obviously, the former has more of an impact on a team's chance of scoring, and thus, should be weighed as more significant. NEP takes this into account while more traditional statistics do not.
|Full Name||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/P||Rec NEP||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target||Total NEP|
Looking at last year's NEP numbers alone, it seems safe to conclude Jonas Gray should be the favorite to win the power-back role and Cadet to win the pass-catching role.
Last year, among the 67 backs with at least 60 carries, Jonas Gray ranked seventh in Rushing NEP (16.66) and first in Rushing NEP per play (0.19). Although his season was cut short, the numbers he put up were really terrific, thanks to his monstrous game against the Colts.
Travaris Cadet performed best of the group in terms of receiving. He ranked 22nd in Reception NEP (14.91) and 23rd in Reception NEP per target (0.29) among 49 NFL backs with at least 20 receptions last season. However, to put that in perspective, Shane Vereen ranked fifth last year in Reception NEP (32.69) and 11th in Reception NEP per target (0.42).
Based on last season, it surely appears the best true runner on this team is Gray -- by a wide margin -- followed by Blount. However, to suggest that is how the carries should be divided next season would be short-sighted.
Blount's numbers from last year are skewed from his time spent backing up Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. Blount has been significantly better in the Belichick system posting 4.94 yards per carry compared to his non-Patriots average of 4.49.
Blount's Rushing NEP with the Patriots in 2013 was 9.43 with a Rushing NEP per play of 0.06, which ranked ninth and eighth in the league, respectively. Last year, Jonas Gray raked up more than all of his total Rushing NEP in just one week, posting 17.33 NEP in Week 11 against the Colts. Without it he would have had a Rushing NEP of -0.67.
Again, 63% of Blount's carries came against base defenses last year, and runners who faced more nickel and dime packages were at a major advantage compared to backs who were facing off against more linemen and linebackers stacking the box. Blount ranked ninth in the league with an actual yards per carry of 4.6 compared to an expected 4.0, according to Mike Clay. In 2013, Blount ranked first in the league with an expected yards per carry of 3.9 compared to an actual yards per carry of 5.2.
The ability to run against a stacked box is critical for Belichick's lead role, and Blount has more than proven he can be that guy.
Last year, the Patriots had their lowest total of rushing yards since 2005 and their lowest total of rushing touchdowns since 2003. Is it possible Bill attempts to improve his backfield and make up for the losses of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen through the draft? 2015 will mark Bill Belichick's 21st draft as a head coach, and in that time, he's drafted a running back just 11 times. He's only ever drafted three running backs in the first two rounds: Tommy Vardell and Laurence Maroney in the first (both of whom never had a 1,000 yard season) and then Shane Vereen in 2011 in the second.
This year's running class is considered one of the best and deepest in recent memory and there are many prospects who could fit nicely into the Shane Vereen role. David Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, and Duke Johnson all project to be terrific pass-catching backs at an NFL level who could go Day Two or Three in the draft. The latter two fit extremely well into Belichick's ideal height and weight for a pass-catching back. It is possible Bill adds one of these backs (or perhaps a Zach Zenner or Mike Davis), but I think after signing Travaris Cadet and spending a fourth round draft pick on James White this seems unlikely.
Although Tyler Gaffney could surprise and steal a role, Bill's been grooming White this past year for the Shane Vereen role and signed Cadet as back-up and competition. The roster is crowded enough with capable backs, and Blount should have more than earned Bill's trust as the lead power back by now. The Patriots have bigger concerns after losing Revis, Browner, and Vince Wilfork in free agency to address the running back position this draft.