Trying to make sense of Patriots backfield for fantasy drafts

Trying to predict what <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/nwe/" data-ylk="slk:New England Patriots">New England Patriots</a> coach Bill Belichick will do with his backfield each season has driven fantasy owners&nbsp;crazy for years. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Trying to predict what New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick will do with his backfield each season has driven fantasy owners crazy for years. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The lesson: Don’t be fooled by Bill Belichick. Not once. Not twice. Not ever.

In Fantasy Football, this means refusing to overdraft New England Patriots running backs. Yet, after many years of Bill Belichick zigging while the fantasy world zags on running backs, sports fans afflicted with amnesia (or perhaps just inebriated) are now genuinely excited about a Patriots running back for the first time in a decade.

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The Running Back Committee Overlord

The curious enthusiasm surrounding Mike Gillislee would make Stevan Ridley blush. Recall, Ridley was the only Patriots running back in the last decade to average more than 75 yards per game for a full season. Against this historic backdrop, Gillislee’s average draft position in Yahoo Fantasy drafts has climbed to an absurd 58.1. Gillislee is now a caricature drawing of the overdrafted fantasy running back.

Let’s take a tour through the last 10 years of Patriots leading rushers:

2007: Laurence Maroney: 835 yards
2008: Sammy Morris: 727 yards
2009: Laurence Maroney: 757 yards
2010: BenJarvis Green-Ellis: 1,008 yards
2011: BenJarvis Green-Ellis: 667 yards
2012: Stevan Ridley: 1,263 yards
2013: Stevan Ridley: 773 yards
2014: Jonas Gray: 412 yards
2015: LeGarrette Blount: 703 yards
2016: LeGarrette Blount: 1,161 yards

The Patriots produced three 1,000-yard running backs in 10 years, and in no season was the team’s leading rusher touted by fantasy gamers during the prior summer. In 2010, Green-Ellis erupted in spite of the presence of established veterans: Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor. In 2012, Shane Vereen generated significant buzz in training camp only to see Ridley become the workhorse. In 2016, Dion Lewis’ ADP rose as high as the fifth round in early drafts before a knee surgery revision knocked him out of contention for lead back duties during training camp.

Bell-Cow Agnostic

Belichick deploys running backs like a Maximus deploys Roman legions – with cunning and guile and little consideration of loyalty or tradition. When Blount proved ineffective in the first half of last year’s Super Bowl and the Patriots faced a famously improbable deficit, Belichick switched running back gears, aggressively deployed James White, who went on to post a 45-point fantasy performance deserving of the Super Bowl MVP trophy.

The Patriots roster has not featured a set-it-and-forget-it back since Corey Dillon rang up 1,635 rushing yards in 2004. Since then, only Ridley surpassed the 1,300 all-purpose yard mark with 1,304 total yards in 2012.

Why?

More than any other team, the Patriots deploy backs based on defensive matchups and game situation. This “bell-cow agnostic” approach helps maximize the efficiency of historically underwhelming running back talents (with the glaring exception of fantasy football superstar Danny Woodhead) while minimizing the historic fantasy value of Patriots backs.

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Red Zone Efficiency Regression

In spite of Belichick’s contempt for fantasy enthusiasts, their case for Gillislee goes something like this: LeGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns in a high-efficiency Patriots offense in 2016. The Patriots will score even more points in 2017. Gillislee is the highest paid running back on the roster. Gillislee was top-3 in the NFL in red zone conversion rate in 2016.” 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 5,938,323 touchdowns in 2017.

Not so fast.

Red zone efficiency is a notoriously unstable running back metric and unsustainable red zone usage and touchdown conversion rates are the singular greatest source of running back fantasy football ADP inflation. Gillislee’s nine touchdowns on 18 red zone carries in 2016, a 2:1 red zone carry-to-touchdown rate, will be almost impossible to replicate. Gillislee’s likely red zone efficiency regression is the just the first crack in the oversimplified math propping up his preseason fantasy value. 

Efficient RB Alternatives

Unlike Blount, Gillislee is just 208-pounds (Blount weighted 241-pounds in 2016) and has significant competition for running back touches. The following players should cannibalize touches from Gillislee between the 20’s, at the goal line, and in the passing game.

Mike Gillislee Advanced Stats &amp; Metrics Profile on PlayerProfiler.com
Mike Gillislee Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile on PlayerProfiler.com

Goal Line Vulture: Rex Burkhead

Writing for PlayerProfiler.com, Hunter Gibbon makes the case that Burkhead is both the biggest and most athletic running back on the Patriots roster. Offering best-in-class size-adjusted athleticism, Burkhead is the logical choice for goal line and short-yardage carries.

Passing Game Whiz: James White

Reviewing PlayerProfiler.com’s Production Premium metric, which measures a running back’s fantasy output from any given down and distance above expectation, White has been the most efficient running back in the NFL over past two seasons.

  • 2015 Production Premium: +60.4 (No. 1 in the NFL)

  • 2016 Production Premium: +48.3 (No. 2)

White’s efficiency has been fueled by hyper-activity in the passing game. Over the last 10 seasons, running backs have averaged just over 7.5 yards per reception compared to just over 4.0 yards per rush – a staggering 3.5 yards per touch efficiency differential. Gillislee has been a non-factor in the passing game going back to his time and Florida, and White’s presence ensures that will not change in 2017.

Elusiveness Machine: Dion Lewis

Incumbent back Dion Lewis’ Juke Rate on PlayerProfiler.com indicates that he was the most elusive back in the NFL from 2015-2016.

  • 2015 Juke Rate: 58.8% (No. 1 in the NFL)

  • 2016 Juke Rate: 32.1% (No. 8)

Back with the Patriots and making less than a million dollars per year, Lewis offers big-play ability in normal game situations that Gillislee, and his 96.1 (8th percentile) SPARQ-x Score, does not offer.

Conclusion

Irrational exuberance following Blount’s astounding 18 touchdowns on a league-high 71 red zone carries in 2016 is propelling Gillislee’s 58.1 ADP to Corey Dillon-esque heights in fantasy leagues. Given the Patriots’ historic bell-cow agnostic approach, Gillislee’s likely red zone efficiency regression, and robust competition for backfield touches at any given down and distance, Gillislee’s fantasy juice is not worth the price. Furthermore, Burkhead, White, and Lewis are better fantasy values heading into the season.

Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.
Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft.

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