Sunday, August 7, 2016

Patriots' Backs Have Plenty To Prove Against Saints; Gaffney "Beast Mode" In Waiting?

"Gaffney is an unknown quantity, as he spent all of last season on the Patriots' injured list after being plucked off waivers by Belichick.  Projected to be a third round selection in last season's draft, he fell all the way to Carolina in the sixth round, as questions about his commitment to football and his relative inexperience of being a lead back in college came into play.

Both questions arising from him leaving school after his junior year to play baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, then returning for his senior year when he flat went off on the Pac-12, rushing for 1700 yards and 21 touchdowns in his only season as a starter.  At 6' 0" and 220 pounds, the duck-footed Gaffney looks a lot like Seattle Seahawks' runner Marshawn Lynch in the open field and at times in college looked just as difficult to bring down." - Foxborough Free Press, June 1, 2015

Tyler Gaffney says he wants to run like former Seattle Seahawks' running back Marshawn Lynch - but truth be known, he already does.

The duck-footed bruiser has a gait that has always resembled the man known universally as "Beast Mode", prefers to finish runs by punishing the tackler and has next-to-no elusiveness.  He is a compass runner - when traveling north and south, he is decisive through the hole and prefers to initiate contact and attempt to break the tackle rather than try to run around the tackle...

...but when traveling east or west - or sideline-to-sideline for the uninitiated - he is a bit of a glider, floating to the corner like a mobile quarterback would, waiting for a receiver to come open, only Gaffney is looking for a seam to plant his foot and burst through.

None of it is fancy, and it isn't intended to be.  Gaffney is a power back, pure and simple.

He won't break off many long runs and he will rarely beat a linebacker or a safety to the corner.  What he will do is gain the stripe by any means possible, be it the first down marker or the goal line, and if given the ball as a workhorse back, he will wear down a defensive front seven.

And that's what you want your running game to do for you.  In the version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick employs, the original mantra of "Pass to score, run to win" is in full effect - throw the ball to gain a lead, then run the ball to demoralize the defense and eat the clock.

The Patriots' passing game is tried and true regardless of signal caller, and that was even before the team added the likes of Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, and while those players need some reps in the offense to bone up for the season, it is the running game that has the most question marks surrounding it as the Patriots move towards their first preseason game next Thursday night.

There were two main issues that plagued the running back corps last season, and both needed to be addressed in the offseason.  The first being addressing the lack of tangible depth, as New England had no one to carry the load after they lost both scatback Dion Lewis and power back LeGarrette Blount, rendering the offense one-dimensional.

No one needs to tell Patriots' fans how ugly that was, nor how frustrating it was to watch the offensive line being overwhelmed like a earthen levee trying to hold back a tsunami, the lack of a running game allowing Patriots' opponents to load up their pass rush, knowing that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had next-to-nothing to attack the middle of the defense with.

The second issue was that McDaniels has a bad habit of ignoring the tenets of the offensive philosophy by passing to score, then passing to try and win - as evidenced by the Patriots logging the lowest number of running plays in the history of the franchise.

Some of that had to do with the injuries, but the pace was already set way before Blount went down with three games remaining on the Patriots' schedule - and that can't happen again if New England hopes to ascend to the pinnacle of professional football.

Short of self-monitoring, there is no guarantee that McDaniels will comply with the philosophy, as the aforementioned passing game is destined to be the most lethal in the business - but that is a subject for the regular season, when the games count.  What the coaches will concentrate on in these initial preseason games is putting the running backs through some individual down-and-distance circumstances, to guage their reaction to certain stimuli.

For instance, Gaffney will most likely serve as a workhorse against the Saints, getting plenty of touches right up the gut against New Orleans' less-then-stout interior run defense.  Like a true power back, Gaffney needs some initial carries early in the game to get his feet wet, so to speak, and as is evident from the video, the more carries he gets, the more effective he becomes.

The same goes for Blount, who is a proven hammer and doesn't really need many reps in preseason, and since he is still recovering from the hip injury that ended his 2015 season, he may not get many at all - the same goes for Lewis, who is coming back from an ACL.

But unlike Blount and Gaffney, Lewis doesn't need to build up to effectiveness, as his video game like moves and sudden explosiveness make him an instant asset in the offense and, in fact, may be a better choice than the aforementioned power backs as the team's lead back as he is tough as nails between the tackles and almost impossible to corral if he slips into the second level off the edge.

Lewis is also the best pass catcher of the running back stable, but none of these things are in play for the first preseason game, as Lewis will likely be a spectator as the team wants to careful with him coming off of season-ending injuries in consecutive seasons.

What is in play, however, is a wide open competition for passing back depth, with perhaps just one spot available and three viable candidates.

James White has to be considered the favorite, as he filled in ably for Lewis after the ligament tear, gaining a comfortablity and the trust of Brady down the stretch.  Not as electric as Lewis in the open field - and, really, who is? - White instead relies on a wicked stutter-step and crazy body control, his elusiveness lying in barely conspicuous movements to get a defender leaning the wrong way.

What White hasn't proven is an ability to run between the tackles, so we can expect to see plenty of the Wisconsin product taking the deep handoff and hitting the hole with authority, which is, really, the only thing missing from his game - but he is capable, as he tore up the Big 10 as a complementary back who tore off large chunks of yardage strait up the guy in the Badgers' wall blocking scheme.

Free agent veteran Donald Brown also has a lot to prove, as he bottomed out when he had an opportunity to seize the lead back role in San Diego the past two seasons after five mediocre seasons playing part-timer in Indianapolis. Brown, a former first round selection out of UConn, has had opportunities in each of his seven professional seasons...

...backing up such marginal talent as Joseph Addai, Vick Ballard, and Trent Richardson with the Colts and Branden Oliver and rookie Melvin Gordon in San Diego - but every coup attempt has failed miserably. The primary culprit being that he is a jack of all trades, but a master of none - and his journeyman skills don't translate to sustained success.

Brown will get his touches against the Saints much the same way as White will, with plenty of work between the tackles and, particularly in Brown's case, how he performs in pass protection - as must for Patriots' backs and something that White does well, while Brown struggles.

Joey Iosefa is somewhat of a cult hero in New England, but if he makes this team, it means that either New England has had some serious injuries or Belichick isn't comfortable with any other depth player.  Bad Craziness. Still, Iosefa is a Blount-sized power back with very limited wiggle and zero change of direction ability which may limit him to a blocking back role...

...which belongs to James Develin, another Patriots' back coming off of a season-ending injury - so with Develin most likely being limited in preseason, Iosefa has an opportunity to display his wares and versatility in an attempt to gain a spot on the practice squad, if nothing else.

If there is a wild card in the mix for the final running back spot it is undrafted rookie D.J. Foster.  A gap-skipper, Foster is going to have to show a decisiveness with hole selection in the running game, and prove that he can get a clean release in the passing game without relying on pre-snap motion. Fans of the Arizona product will want to see him work out of the slot and as the trailing man in the bunch formation.

As with every other back on the roster not named Lewis or Blount, this preseason is vital to their continued employment.  It is going to come down to a question of what each would bring to the attack, which player's distinctiveness increases the talent level and gives the offense a better chance to become the juggernaut it is destined to be.

With Gaffney, his burden is two-fold: He has to try to either steal away Brandon Bolden's spot on the roster or try to unseat Blount.  Bolden is a running back in name only, a cover for his role as a special teams' ace.  The team would like to get more out of the position than a couple of meaningless carries, though Bolden was the best power back the Patriots had in the post season, which isn't saying a whole lot...

...and Gaffney has been doing some impressive work as a gunner on punting teams in camp, so his stock is rising. His task is a bit more daunting dealing with Blount, as he gives up thirty pounds and six years experience to the incumbent, but given the way he ran over, around and through Pac-12 opponents as a senior at Stanford, it is a given that he has the tools.

In his first three seasons at Stanford, however, Gaffney was all about baseball.

In high school, the San Diego native ran track and played basketball, football and baseball, opting for the latter two at Stanford, where he also doubled up on his majors of both Sociology and Psychology. On the gridiron, he saw little action his first three seasons while starting every game as an outfielder for the Cardinal baseball team...

...earning a 24th round draft selection from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the process.  With his football career going nowhere, Gaffney signed with the Pirates and left school, playing the 2012 season for the Class-A State College Spikes, who played their home schedule on the campus of Penn State University.

He played well, and constantly received congratulatory texts from his former coaches and teammates on nice plays and big hits, then took in Stanford football games during the baseball offseason, and began to miss the camaraderie he witnessed sitting in the stands with the families of his teammates - then after Stanford won the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin, Gaffney was cornered by defensive end Ben Gardiner.

"I told him that he was going to have a terrific offensive line" Gardiner recanted recently, referring to the 2013 season.  Gaffney took the bait and returned to Palo Alto, taking over as the bell-cow for the Cardinal and averaging 5.2 yards per carry and putting up a 1709 yard and 21 touchdown stat line on 330 carries.

Obviously, that number of touches is proof-positive that Gaffney can carry the load, and do so without putting the ball on the ground.  He gives up his body in pass protection and has decent hands out of the backfield - and given the noise he's making in camp, he may be a functional part of the Patriots' backfield going forward...

...but first, he needs to make it through camp and preseason contests to make the final roster, and he's going to have to show plenty to unseat a veteran, but there's a reason why Belichick plucked him off the waiver wire when the Carolina Panthers tried to sneak him through waivers and onto the IR when he partially tore a meniscus - and also why he kept Gaffney around after he missed all of last season with a bum knee.

To know what those reasons are, one only has to watch his college tape - it's all we have to judge him by to this point, but hopefully he shows a little of the Beast Mode against the Saints that he wants to emulate, because a fast start in the first preseason game can only help his visibility with the coaching staff.

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