Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Moves on White, Gillislee Show Patriots Learned Lesson From Super Bowl

News is usually slow in the dog days of free agency, what with most teams settled on their veteran rosters and settling into draft mode - but there are days where the news wire takes on a life of it's own.

For the New England Patriots, Tuesday was one of those days.

Lulled to sleep by weeks of inactivity, Patriots' fans and beat writers were jolted awake with news that the team had signed Buffalo Bills' restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet, the two year $6.4 million offer a significant number for both the Bills to match and a bitter pill for incumbent power back LeGarrette Blount to swallow...

...bitter, because the 30 year old Blount has now watched in horror as Belichick has signed former Bengals' running back Rex Burkhead and Gillislee - both 26 years old - to the dollar amounts that Blount was seeking - and if that wasn't depressing enough for him, the Patriots also announced that they had come to terms with Super Bowl hero James White on a three-year contract extension.

Terms of White's extension have not been made public, but one can be certain that the NFL's most improved running back in 2016 was given a raise right around the offers that Burkhead and Gillislee received, and in line with what former-Patriots' passing back Shane Vereen banked with the Giants on the open market in 2015 - so one can expect to see White's extension in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million per season.

And for good reason, as White ranked the third-most efficient passing back in the NFL last season, behind only Arizona's David Johnson and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, and was second on the Patriots with 60 receptions, giving him the best passing back numbers in the Dynasty era, surpassing even the great Kevin Faulk.

What's more, there has never been a back more dependable with the ball in team history, having never put the ball on the ground in 213 career touches.  In fact, one has to go all the way back to 2011 - his sophomore season at Wisconsin - for the last time he fumbled a football, giving him 629 competitive touches without giving the ball away, something that head ball coach Bill Belichick values more than just about anything else.

So is it any wonder that Belichick was so comfortable giving White the ball during crunch time in the Super Bowl?

"He's just everything you want in a teammate" quarterback Tom Brady said of White in the immediate aftermath of the title tilt, "Dependable, consistent and durable, brings it every day and we just kept going to him - So I think that speaks for itself."

Even Belichick, who wouldn't say crap even if he had a mouth full of it, gave us a hint of how he felt about White down the stretch last season.

"It would take somebody playing pretty good to be better than him" Belichick said when asked if fellow passing back Dion Lewis returning in November would cut into White's touches, adding, "Could someone do it better than him? I don't know, but it would take quite a bit based on where he is and how consistent he's been with what he's done."

White finished the 2016 season first in the NFL among running backs with five receiving touchdowns, and third in receptions and receiving yards - and in three seasons with the Patriots has amassed over 1500 yards and scored 15 touchdowns despite being active for just three games in his rookie season

Assuming that Buffalo doesn't match the offer New England made to Gillislee, the Patriots are set at running back for the foreseeable future, which is a huge departure from just one day ago, when there wasn't a running back on the roster signed past the 2017 season, a fact that made New England a prime candidate for hooking up with a running back in the draft...

...but with Burkhead and Gillislee being redundant talents as far as being downhill slashers who seem to instinctually find cutback lanes against the flow of a zone blocking scheme, and with White and Lewis being top shelf passing backs - and all 26 years old or under - runners should now be of the lowest priority.

All of that aside, these moves do express what it takes to be a running back for the New England Patriots.

In a world where the perception is that backs are being devalued and specialization is all the rage, the Patriots put a premium on runners who have one skill set in common: They are all, despite labels placed on them by the specialization, all purpose backs - willing blockers in pass protection, soft hands and yards-after-the-catch production in the pattern, in addition to running tough between the tackles.

These moves on offense are just another example of the Patriots' "fresh" team philosophy - accountable depth, redundant in nature yet subtly different from each other to present constant, consistent matchup issues for their opponents.  We see this on defense as Belichick rotates in his bigs on the defensive line, pass rushers on the second level and safeties in the Big Nickel - but not so much on offense, not until now.

The philosophy that works on defense by keeping guys fresh for crunch time has leaked into the offense.  We saw what happens to teams that try to defend an offense that is hell-bent on taking seriously the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality - but what happened to Atlanta's defense in the Super Bowl was actually more a product of their defense being on the field for 28 consecutive plays in the second quarter than the Patriots being methodical...

...but the lessons learned in that game are about to introduce a new tactic to the world of professional football, one that having four running backs to cycle in and out on a whim to create mismatches at a pace normally reserved for line changes in hockey - giving the already lethal Patriots' offense what will appear to the gassed defenders as the man advantage...

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