Why Are The Patriots Paying Running Backs So Much Money This Offseason?

The New England Patriots entered the offseason with gobs of salary cap space and decided to throw it at … running backs?

Rex Burkhead, take $3.15 million. James White, here’s $12 million over three years. Oh, hello Mike Gillislee, have $6.4 million over two seasons.

This is a weird move for the Patriots, who haven’t been willing to pay a running back $2 million per season since Fred Taylor in 2010.

Running backs are significantly underpaid compared to their NFL compatriots. They’re paid, on average, under $1.4 million per season, according to Spotrac.com. Only fullbacks, who make $890,493 per season and long snappers, who make $752,570 per season, make less. So yes, you’re reading this correctly: Kickers and punters make more than running backs.

So, what does Belichick do? Pay a little more than anyone else is willing for three players he feels are worth it. It’s probably only a couple hundred grand more than the next highest bidder. But that’s a paltry sum compared to how much he would have to pay to sway a wide receiver, pass rusher or cornerback.

Belichick likes to stay ahead of the trend rather than with it. It wouldn’t be shocking to see running back salaries start to rise again.

All of this is to say, Dion Lewis, who’s owed just $1.4875 million this season, better not pick up a check all season.

White will be the Patriots’ highest paid running back as of 2018, but Gillislee currently holds that distinction. Because he was signed for more, holds less special teams value and is more proven than Burkhead, is under contract for two years plus garnered a fifth-round pick, Gillislee now is expected to be the Patriots’ lead early-down back. White will continue to be the Patriots’ third-down pass-catcher while Burkhead and Lewis can play both roles. Burkhead also could be a core-four special-teamer.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots keep just three running backs this season. And Lewis clearly would be the odd-man out, since White, Burkhead and Gillislee are on new contracts.

Then again, running back depth is important, and how much value would Lewis really garner in a trade? Would it be worth sacrificing that depth at the position? Probably not.

It will be fascinating to see how the Patriots’ roster shakes out at running back come September. The Patriots are paying big money for largely unproven but analytically-superior players. Gillislee and Burkhead topped FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA running back rankings. White is ProFootballFocus.com’s best running back in the passing game.

These are three players who should live up to contracts that currently seem bloated.

Burkhead chose the Patriots over other options on the open market. The Bills chose to turn Gillislee over to the Patriots. Time will tell if the Bills should have invested more of their own resources into the position.

Thumbnail photo via Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports Images

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