Backfield Battles: Patriots

backfield battle NEP

By Jacob Bourgeois; Twitter: @JacobBourgieFFB

This is the first in a series on “backfield battles,” where I’ll be looking at the less desirable situations to see if “there be gold in them hills.”  I’ll review the backfield narrative(s) leading up to this offseason, the offseason results & impacts, and then finish with outcome scenarios.

Stats are from www.espn.com; www.fantasypros.com; and www.pro-football-reference.com.  

Timeline

2016:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Tom Brady

In 2016 it was the LeGarrette Blount show, the Patriots’ last 1000-yard rusher who boasted 18 TDs (but on a modest 3.9 YPC).  Meanwhile, James White turned 86 targets into 60 catches for 551 yards.  The narrative coming into the season was Dion Lewis had earned more reps from his efficiency in 2015 but missed a practice and was relegated to back-up duty. 

Depth Chart:

1st+2nd Downs: LeGarrette Blount (RB9 in PPR, RB7 in STD)

3rd Downs + Passing: James White (RB26 in PPR, 35 in STD)

Goal Line Back (GLB): LeGarrette Blount

RESULT of the old school ground and pound: Superbowl WIN (Brady, Edelman, and James White dominated ATL in the 4th quarter and overtime).

2017:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Tom Brady

With Blount off to Philadelphia, it was an all-out committee: fantasy points were spread between Mike Gillislee (hot start), Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead (hot finish).  Dion Lewis was the lead rusher when healthy. 

Depth Chart:

1st+2nd Downs: Dion Lewis (RB15 in PPR, RB12 in STD)+ Mike Gillislee

3rd Downs + Passing: James White (RB38 in PPR, RB48 in STD)

Goal Line Back (GLB): Dion Lewis + Mike Gillislee (RB55 in PPG) + Rex Burkhead (RB38 in PPG)

RESULT: Superbowl LOSS (Butler benched; Brady throws for SB record 505 yards – but was outgunned by Nick Foles; Blount and Chris Long go back to back)

***Historical Note: Blake Bortles went into the AFC Championship game with fewer playoff losses and playoff interceptions than Tom Brady setting up what many (memes) consider one of the great QB battles of our generation. 

2018:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Tom Brady

Lewis and Gillislee both walked making way for Sony Michel’s rookie season.  The first-round draft-pick out of Georgia got the ball for 200+ carries, averaging 4.5 YPC.   But it was James White, who led NE in targets (123), who had the notable fantasy finish at RB7 in PPR formats (RB11 in standard).   Dion Lewis vacated backfield targets, Rex Burkhead was injured most of the season and vacated targets, and Sony Michel was used exclusively as a rusher.   

Depth Chart:

1st+2nd Downs: Sony Michel (RB35 in PPR, RB25 in STD)

3rd Downs + Passing: James White (RB7 in PPR, RB11 in STD)

Goal Line Back (GLB): Sony Michel

RESULT: Superbowl WIN (Sony Michel carries 18 times for 94 yards and the only TD of the game).

2019:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Tom Brady

A forgettable offensive season in New England and Brady’s last – the team started out hot on Defense and Sony Michel was used almost exclusively out of the backfield (247 carries), but with little efficiency (3.2 YPC).  This was Damien Harris’ rookie season, but for some reason despite Sony’s ineffectiveness and all of sports talk radio calling for Harris to get a shot, there was significant anti-rookie sentiment floating around the organization (led by Brady), and he remained inactive on game-day, or on the bench.  James White, a trusted ally of Brady, was a lone bright-ish-spot at RB with 72 catches, 900+ yards, and 6 TDs. 

Depth Chart:

1st+2nd Downs: Sony Michel (RB31 in PPR, RB24 in STD)

3rd Downs + Passing: James White (RB18 in PPR, RB29 in STD)

Goal Line Back (GLB): Sony Michel + Rex Burkhead (RB48 in PPR)

RESULT: Team collapsed after a hot start, failing to beat MIA in Week 17 which would have secured a round 1 bye; then lost to the Vrabel led Titans who disrespected their logo at the start of the game, and used Belichick’s false start antics against him.  The end of an 8-year streak of AFC Championship appearances and the end of era. 

2020:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Cam Newton

In 2020, the Patriots had the 4th best rushing offense, behind only Baltimore (Lamar Jackson), Tennessee (Derrick Henry), and Cleveland (Nick Chubb + Kareem Hunt).  The Patriots edged out the Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara led backfields with the help of Cam Newton, who added 592 rushing yards to Damien Harris’ 691 and Sony Michel’s 449. 

Damien Harris was pulling away in the pre-season when he injured his finger putting him out for the first three games, and by a stroke fantasy luck, Sony Michel (coming off a nice game vs. SEA) strained his quad around the week 3 game and like ships passing in the night, the carry count transitioned from Sony to Damien.

From week 4 against the chiefs, Harris rattled off 10 straight weeks as the team’s lead ball carrier but averaged only 13.7 carries and 0.7 targets a game and accounted for 2 total touchdowns and one fumble. 

In week 13 vs the Rams he suffered a back injury which kept him out the rest of the season.  Sony Michel (who had been back and active for a couple weeks) and James White shared the RB duties for the remainder of the season with Michel on downs 1 and 2, and White used on 3rd downs and in obvious passing situations. 

Depth Chart:

1st+2nd Downs: Damien Harris (RB53 in PPR, RB44 in STD) + Sony Michel (RB61 in PPR, RB56 in STD) + Cam Newton (QB)

3rd Downs + Passing: James White (RB42 in PPR, RB57 in STD) + Rex Burkhead (RB44 in PPR, RB48 in STD)

Goal Line Back (GLB): Cam Newton (QB)

RESULT: The team placed 3rd in the AFC East missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and posted its first losing record since 2000 (pre-Brady). 

2021:

HC: Bill Belichick; OC: Josh McDaniels; QB: Cam Newton/Mac Jones

Rank: RB28 – Damien Harris (age: 24, 5’11” 214 lbs., 4.58 40, 5.0 YPC) – ADP RB35 86th overall

Rank: RB54 – James White (age: 29, 5’10” 194 lbs., 4.57 40, 3.5 YPC) – ADP RB55 168th overall

Rank: RB55 – Sony Michel (age: 26, 5’11” 216 lbs., 4.54 40, 4.3 YPC) – ADP RB64 199th overall

IN: Rank: RB79 – Rhamondre Stevenson (age: 23, 6’0” 246 lbs., 4.64 40, 7.2* college YPC) ADP RB72 229th overall

Rank: N/A – J.J. Taylor (age: 23, 5’6” 185 lbs., 4.61 40, 4.8 YPC) – Free

OUT: Rex Burkhead joined the Houston RB retirement club in the offseason.   

SUMMARY

The Patriots drafted Mac Jones with their first-round pick (15th) and Rhamondre Stevenson in round 4 (120th overall – 7th RB off the board).  Mac Jones has close to no rushing threat in his game (similar to Brady) and is an opposite to what Cam Newton brings to the table.  He also makes his money with accurate soft passes vs. Cam who throws hard (and lately) in any direction.  If Mac Jones is the starting QB (and it includes playing most snaps in the RedZone) there is huge upside for the Patriots running backs. Cam Newton’s 12 TDs from 2020 were all essentially stolen from Damien Harris and Sony Michel who combined for 3. 

BUT, even if Cam Newton is benched in favor of the rookie, McDaniels could easily draw up plays where he uses him in short-yardage and goal line situations.  Note: Bill, Josh, and the NEP care little about impact to fantasy football (having expressed as much) and care a ton about doing what puts them in the best position to win.  Cam being a leader on the team (work ethic and swagger) will likely mean more involvement than fantasy GM’s would like.

In the first three games prior to injury, Sony Michel, led the team but looked below average, barely getting what was blocked for him and nothing more.  So, when Damien Harris took over in game 4 there was a notable difference in ability and energy in his rush attempts.  Damien coming out of college was a complete back but was only used on running downs, I think for two reasons – Bill really trusts James White and Rex Burkhead in the passing game, and Bill requires demonstrated mastery before involvement.  Rex is out, and James White is 29. 

We also saw J.J. Taylor has chops.  He’s a little guy but demonstrated nice agility and an up-field nose.  He was used sparingly as a rookie (24 total touches) – so projecting much more for him may be a mistake – I’ll just say I liked what I saw.

Rhamondre Stevenson

Finally, Rhamondre Stevenson is a beast of a man. He leveraged his 246 lbs. for some nice efficiency (6.6 YPC) at Oklahoma on 17 carries, 1.2 TD, and 3 catches per game in 6 games as a senior in 2020. Full pre-draft profile found here: Meet the Freshmen.

Stevenson could be used as a goal line back right away given his size.  Bill has been known to throw anyone who he thought could hammer the ball in (from the offense or defense) carries around the goal line.  Josh McDaniels was quoted in a recent article on Pats Pulpit saying Stevenson was a:

Big back. Certainly good vision. Displayed quick feet, ability to break tackles, makes yards with the ball in his hands.  Demonstrated ability to catch the football and do something with it when he was used int eh passing game.  He’s tough enough o stand in there and block blitzers and do things in protection that can help you when he’s in there and that happens to be the case.”

He could also be put on ice as a rookie assuming health of the guys in front of him as Damien was in 2019. 

SIDE FACTS: Derrick Henry is 6’3” 238 lbs., much faster and a 1st round pick; A.J. Dillon is 6’0” 247 lbs., faster/more athletic and a 2nd round pick.

He’s also been getting LeGarrette Blount comparisons, which as outlined in the timeline above, went well for the Patriots in 2016.  As we saw with Sony Michel’s rookie season, keeping rookies grounded is not a definitive rule, but deferring to the experienced guy (there was no one there Sony’s rookie year) does seem to be. 

CONCLUSION

As the ADP indicates, Damien Harris, if anyone, is the back to own on the Patriots in 2021.  There is a scenario where he greatly outshines his ADP as follows:

  1. It’s clear he’s better than Sony so he keeps the early down snaps to himself vs. a timeshare (80% likely).
  2. Mac Jones starts over Cam (50% likely for week 1, 100% by week 8), and Cam isn’t used in the Taysom Hill / Fantasy Dagger / goal line role (35% likely).
  3. James White and J.J. Taylor’s usage in the passing game goes down based on age and inexperience/size respectively (55% likely).
  4. The team gives Rhamondre a red-shirt year favoring veterans who know the system (70% likely unless Sony is cut, in which case he has a good chance to dress).

Probability that all scenarios above come to pass in 2021: 8% – that’s his true breakout chance (not high, non-zero).  But pick the narratives you believe in for yourself and throw them to 100 and you can see if a few things go his way, he could be in for an increase in A) snaps, B) receptions, and/or C) Touchdowns.  As a pats fan, I like him at his current ADP, but won’t be reaching for him and am fading him as a zero RB centerpiece.      

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