The New England Patriots’ running back stable is more crowded than a Cape Cod supermarket on July 3.
The Patriots already rostered Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill prior to the 2018 NFL Draft. Then they selected Sony Michel in the first round and reportedly picked up Ralph Webb as an undrafted free agent.
So, who will stick and who will be left off the 53-man roster come September, barring injuries?
First things first, Michel, Burkhead and White are locks. So, how many spots does that leave? The Patriots kept five running backs in 2017, and that wasn’t a complete aberration.
The Patriots finished the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2016 seasons with five running backs. The Patriots carried just four running backs for most of the 2015 season, and it wound up biting them squarely on the backside. Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount hit injured reserve, forcing the Patriots to serve cups of coffee to Joey Iosefa, Trey Williams and Steven Jackson.
After Jackson carried the ball four times for 8 yards and New England had just 17 total carries for 44 yards (quarterback Tom Brady led the way with three carries for 13 yards!) in the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos in January 2016, head coach Bill Belichick might have decided running backs, in fact, do not grow on trees.
So, three of five potential spots are accounted for in Michel, Burkhead and White. Who fills the final two?
Bolden has been a mainstay on the Patriots’ roster for six seasons. He was briefly released last September but re-signed two days later and played in all 16 games, recording eight tackles on special teams, carrying the ball 13 times for 67 yards and catching one pass for 7 yards.
Bolden wouldn’t contribute much offensively for the Patriots, but he can fill in on early downs or passing situations in a pinch and provides significant special-teams value. He’s also a locker room leader and FOTB (friend of Tom Brady). He has a better than 50 percent chance of making the roster again in 2018 unless the Patriots believe they can receive more specials teams value out of a tight end like Jacob Hollister or linebacker like Nicholas Grigsby.
Bolden has a cap hit of just $720,000 in 2018.
Gillislee, who has a cap hit of $2.18 million in 2018, appeared in just nine games last season and had 104 carries for 383 yards with one catch for 15 yards. He didn’t play on special teams.
The Patriots gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent, but he was passed on the depth chart by White, Burkhead and Lewis. Gillislee was decent in a small sample size but not better than any of those three. He also missed time with a knee injury late in the season.
Gillislee had five touchdowns, but he struggled in certain short-yardage situations.
Perhaps that’s why the Patriots signed Jeremy Hill to a one-year, $1.5 million contract this offseason. Hill has struggled the last few seasons as he’s dealt with ankle injuries, but he had 29 touchdowns in 47 games through his first three years before failing to get into the end zone in 2017.
Hill caught four passes for 16 yards last season and has 67 career receptions for 484 yards with one score. Gillislee has caught 16 passes for 94 yards in his career.
Webb carried the ball 192 times for 831 yards with 10 touchdowns last season and added 13 catches for 188 yards with one score through the air. He has $70,000 guaranteed in his contract, but he’s a long shot to make the 53-man roster.
So, assuming Bolden makes it, that final spot likely comes down to Gillislee or Hill. Despite struggling last season, Gillislee has been more effective than Hill over a two-year span on a per-snap basis. Hill has more proven production as a receiver and could show to be a better short-yardage option with his ankle fixed.
Gillislee and Hill have a month-plus of training camp practices and four preseason contests to battle it out. But there will be an odd man out, barring injuries, for Week 1. It’s worth noting trimming Gillislee would save the Patriots $2.181 million in cap room, which they could carry over into the 2019 season. Cutting Hill would only save them $1.181 million. If everything else is equal, we’d keep the cheaper candidate.
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