While the Patriots played about as bad as one could have possibly imagined Thursday night, the sky is indeed not falling in New England, contrary to popular belief. Sure, the defense looked abysmal (at best), and the offense sputtered throughout the majority of the second half, but the 2017 Patriots are still a team loaded with talent that every team in the NFL should fear, and in an otherwise disappointing effort, the weapons out of the backfield showed a mere glimmer of how hard this Patriots offense will be to stop once it hits full gear.
The trio of Mike Gillislee, James White, and Rex Burkhead were a few of the lone bright spots Thursday night, with Gillislee as the unquestioned star of the show in his Patriots debut, racking up 45 yards on 15 attempts, finding the end zone on three occasions, and dominating the touches in the red zone. White also contributed 68 yards on 13 touches, and Burkhead gained 23 yards on his four touches.
Having three running backs of the caliber of this trio is an incredible thing, and I think we saw just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what these three are capable of.
Gillislee, the 2016 league-leader in yards per carry, figures to be the goal line and short yardage back going forward (filling LeGarrette Blount’s former role), and is the best between-the-tackles runner out of the three. However, Gillislee will rarely be used as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, seeing as the former Bill had only nine catches last year in Buffalo (he was also not targeted once Thursday night).
While White led the group in snaps (with 43), Gillislee ranked second, seeing the field 24 times, and outsnapped White 17 to 15 in the first half before the game called for a more passing-intensive gameplay in the latter parts of the second half.
White is certainly the best receiver out of the group, and despite only registering three catches on opening night, White will most likely eclipse his career-high in catches in a season in 2017 (his highest total is 60 catches, which was set last season). White was also pretty effective running between the tackles, something he was not necessary known for coming out of Wisconsin in 2014, but has steadily improved upon with each passing season, and his 10 carries against the Chiefs indicates the level of trust McDaniels feels in handing the ball off to the fourth-year running back.
Burkhead is more of a mix of the two then anything, as he possesses similar size to Gillislee (214 pounds compared to Gillislee’s 218), but is far more of a passing threat than Gillislee, and lined up on the outside on several occasions Thursday night. Burkhead only caught 17 balls last year in Cincinnati, but that low figure was more due to the logjam above him on the running back depth chart than his ability as a pass-catcher. Unfortunately for Burkhead, he might face a similar situation in New England, as he is currently entrenched as the third running back on the depth chart, seeing as he played only 10 snaps compared to the 43 and 24 snaps put up by White and Gillislee respectively.
The one name not mentioned much in the Patriots backfield last night was Dion Lewis, who ran for just for nine yards on his two carries, and only saw the field for six plays. While he figures to play a prominent role in the kick return game, it appears that his days as a contributing member of the Patriots backfield are numbered. Lewis is a free agent after this season, yet the Patriots chose to extend White (who was also scheduled for free agency after the 2017 season) instead of him this offseason, handing White a three-year extension with a base salary of 12 million, as well as inking Gillislee and Burkhead to big-money (for the Patriots at least) extensions.
In fact, the Patriots hadn’t paid a running back more then two million since 2010, but the 2017 Patriots have three running backs all earning upwards of two million, a sign that Lewis really is the odd man out, despite the incredible stretch of play he put up in his first season in New England in 2015.
In short, the Patriots have perhaps the deepest stable of running backs in the entire league, and the trio of Gillislee, White, and Burkhead figure to be a major part of the Patriots offense for the rest of the 2017 season.