The NFL off-season program is in full swing, with teams having started phase three of the program: OTAs. These practices comprise the only times during the off-season in which teams are permitted to conduct ‘competitive’ drills that feature players from both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. However, only a few such practices are open to the media. With that in mind, I will be continuing my positional breakdown of the 2018 New England Patriots roster. Today we will take a look at the running backs.
Practice Squad (1): Ralph Webb
Bill Belichick is not one to conform to conventional wisdom, as shown by his selection of Georgia running back Sony Michel with the 31st overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Despite being known as a team that can make nearly any running back look good as part of their rotation, the Patriots invested a high draft pick at a position that already had its fair share of talent.
James White is the designated receiving back, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon after signing a contract extension prior to the 2017 season. He may be flexed into the slot in certain packages if neither Riley McCarron nor Braxton Berrios can prove themselves to be reliable backup slot options. They also re-signed Rex Burkhead, who flashed good play in many different areas when he was healthy last season. When he wasn’t battling injury, Burkhead proved himself to be a solid running back who can move the sticks in short-yardage or goal-line situations, catch both out of the backfield and when split out wide and make people miss in space while also being a contributor on special teams. James Develin returns as the starting fullback and will continue to serve as a lead blocker and as a decoy against certain zone coverages.
Bolden, Gillislee, and Hill are all rotational-level players and should be on a 53-man roster by the time the season rolls around, but its very unlikely that the Patriots elect to carry six running backs plus a fullback during the season. Bolden has an edge due to his special teams ability and will likely make the roster just for that purpose. He also flashes versatility on offense; at 220 pounds, he is a decent short-yardage back but can also serve as a third down back.
That leaves Gillislee and Hill to fight for what is likely only one roster spot. Gillislee had a decent start to the 2017 season before being a healthy scratch for most of the second half of the year once Dion Lewis broke out. The Patriots sort of shoehorned him into a short-yardage/goal-line role, but that really isn’t Gillislee’s specialty. He’s more of a bigger one-cut and go kind of guy, similar to former Patriot Stevan Ridley. Unfortunately, the addition of Sony Michel likely relegates Gillislee to competing for a short-yardage role in a competition he will likely lose to Jeremy Hill. Hill is about $1 million cheaper and fits the mold of a traditional bruiser and goal-line back better than Gillislee does. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots try to ship Gillislee out somewhere for a 7th-round pick before the end of training camp instead of just cutting him outright.
Undrafted rookie Ralph Webb is a name to keep an eye on. The Patriots guaranteed him $70,000, and generally only guarantee undrafted rookie free agents that much money if they plan on keeping them around. For reference, both Jacob Hollister and Harvey Langi were guaranteed similar amounts of money as undrafted rookies last year and both ended up making the 53-man roster. While its unlikely that he beats out at least two of Bolden, Gillislee, or Hill out for a spot on the active roster, the Patriots will likely try to keep him around on the practice squad. If the amount of guaranteed money is any indicator, though, its unlikely he would clear waivers on cut day.
My final prediction:
Roster (6): Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill, James Develin
Cut (1): Mike Gillislee (or traded)
Practice Squad (1): Ralph Webb (if he clears waivers, which I’m guessing he will not)
Stay tuned next week, as I discuss the Patriots’ wide receiver corps! You can view the first installment of this series here.