FOXBORO, Mass. — The Buffalo Bills boasted a powerful rushing attack last season, with Mike Gillislee complementing five-time Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy.
But Gillislee, who signed with the division rival New England Patriots as a restricted free agent earlier this year, believes New England’s retooled running back crew is even better than the one he was a part of in Buffalo.
“This is the most talented group of running backs that I’ve ever been a part of,” Gillislee said after Saturday’s training camp practice. “These guys are not only great football players, they’re great human beings, as well. I’m just blessed to get this opportunity to be here.”
Though the Patriots don’t have any single running back as talented as McCoy, who ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards and third in yards per carry in 2016, the offseason additions of Gillislee and Rex Burkhead made their group both dynamic and incredibly deep. It’s easy to envision Gillislee, Burkhead, James White or Dion Lewis leading the team in touches in any given game.
“It’s not just one guy — it’s all of them,” Gillislee said. “All of these guys have something special about them, and all these guys work hard and don’t take no days off. That’s what’s up with these guys.”
The Patriots did, however, lose a valuable back when LeGarrette Blount signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. The 6-foot, 250-pound Blount carried the ball 299 times last season and rushed for a franchise-record 18 touchdowns, and running backs coach Ivan Fears earlier this week said he needs one of the team’s current backs to “play big” in order to fill that void.
Gillislee, who averaged a league-best 5.7 yards per carry last season, seems like the most logical choice.
“Last year in Buffalo, that was kind of my role,” Gillislee said. “But here, I’m just here to come here each and every day, give it 100 percent and leave all those options up to the coaches.”
The Patriots suited up in full pads Saturday for the first time this summer, allowing the running backs to showcase the full range of their skills. Gillislee seized this opportunity, bulldozing his way into the end zone for two goal-line touchdowns during 11-on-11 drills.
“It felt great,” Gillislee said. “It had been six or so months since the last time I put on pads, so it felt great to come out here and show the coaches what I can do.”
Unlike White, Lewis and Burkhead, Gillislee is not known as a receiving threat (he’s caught just 18 career passes), but he’s confident he can contribute in that facet of the game, as well.
“That’s one of the things that these guys are real (good) at, but I’m pretty good at it myself,” Gillislee said. “It’s all about opportunities.”
Gillislee was used sparingly during his first two NFL seasons before breaking out in 2016. He played in all but one game for the Bills, rushing 101 times for 577 yards and eight touchdowns.
Thumbnail photo via Zack Cox/NESN.com