FOXBORO, Mass. — Last summer, Mike Gillislee called the 2017 New England Patriots’ running back group the most talented he’d ever been a part of.
Unfortunately for Gillislee, the team determined he was the least valuable member of that group.
After rushing for three touchdowns in the Patriots’ regular-season opener and another in Week 2, Gillislee began to slide down the depth chart. He averaged just 40.1 rushing yards per game over the next six weeks, then was effectively banished following the Patriots’ Week 9 bye.
With Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White forming a potent backfield trio and Brandon Bolden providing value on special teams, Gillislee suited up for just one of New England’s final 11 games (including playoffs). He rushed six times for 28 yards and a touchdown in a Week 16 win over his former team, the Buffalo Bills, but otherwise was all but invisible for the final three months of the season.
Officially, some of Gillislee’s absences were injury-related, as he dealt with a knee ailment late in the year. But the vast majority of them were healthy scratches, signaling the Patriots simply believed Lewis, Burkhead and White gave them a better chance to win.
All told, Gillislee appeared in nine games, carrying the ball 101 times for 383 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry — a far cry from the NFL-leading 5.7-yard average he posted for Buffalo in 2016.
Now, Lewis is gone, having parlayed his career year into a four-year, $20 million contract with the Tennessee Titans. And Gillislee, who has one season remaining on his Patriots deal, finds himself squarely on the roster bubble.
“You’ve just got to stay focused,” Gillislee said Thursday after the Patriots’ third minicamp practice. “But at the same time, you’ve got to know that you’re blessed, because there’s a lot of people that want to be in my situation. … I’m still on the team and just working hard every day trying to get better. …
“I’ve been given another opportunity, and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”
Gillislee was limited for several weeks last summer as he recovered from a hamstring injury, missing several practices and two preseason games as a result. He returned to full health in time for Week 1 but said missing those important training camp reps set him back.
“I feel a lot better than I did last year,” the 27-year-old said. “Last year, you look back and I was on the sideline with an injury. This year, I’m running around, and I’m healthy.”
Burkhead, who re-signed with the team earlier this year, and White are roster locks, as is rookie Sony Michel, whom the Patriots selected with the 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Projecting final rosters is difficult at this time of year, but Gillislee and newcomer Jeremy Hill could be battling for just one spot.
The addition of Michel, in particular, lit a fire under Gillislee.
“I just knew that I had to bring a little bit more to the table, because more competition (had been) added to the table,” he said. “With the other guys, too. So just coming out here every day and working hard and growing with those guys is one of the best things ever.”
Hill, who starred as a Cincinnati Bengals rookie in 2014 and rushed for 29 touchdowns over his first three seasons, also is coming off a disappointing 2017 campaign. Injuries limited him to just seven games, and he was unproductive in those, totaling just 116 yards on 37 carries with zero scores.