How Will Patriots Use Running Backs? Third Preseason Game Could Give Clues

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Have a fantasy football draft Thursday or Friday? It’s probably better to stay away from New England Patriots running backs for now.

It’s difficult to foresee which Patriots running back will see the most touches during the 2017 regular season, let alone produce the most fantasy value. Gillislee currently is ranked 24th in Yahoo! fantasy running back rankings, with Rex Burkhead ranked 47th, James White 48th and Dion Lewis 56th.

Given how good Burkhead looked Saturday night in the Patriots’ second preseason game, he seems to be undervalued. Throwing a wrench in the matter, however, is that Burkhead currently is sitting out of practice with an undisclosed injury. (The running back shares an agent with head coach Bill Belichick, so it’s unlikely any information on the matter will leak before the Patriots are forced to release an injury report prior to Week 1.)

Burkhead projects as a do-everything back if he doesn’t take over the starting role altogether. He has the power to run between the tackles and has shown soft hands throughout the summer.

Gillislee finally is healthy after sitting out of the Patriots’ first two preseason games with a hamstring injury. It’s possible he could live up to his current billing as a No. 2/3 fantasy running back, but it depends on how he performs Friday night against the Detroit Lions in the Patriots’ third preseason game. Because of how long he was out with the hamstring injury, it’s possible he sees a lesser role to begin the season, regardless. Since Gillislee is the biggest of the Patriots’ running backs, he’s the most likely to take goal-line carries. So, he should finish the most touchdowns, though that’s no guarantee if Burkhead overtakes the No. 1 spot.

White is only useable in a PPR league, where he’s an OK flex option. White is the Patriots’ third-down back but could see some snaps and reps taken away by Burkhead and Lewis, both of whom also can catch out of the backfield. White had 60 catches for 551 yards with five touchdowns through the air and 39 carries for 166 yards on the ground in 2016. He picked up 166 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in three playoff games.

Lewis is nothing but a fantasy flier at this point because of his lack of durability. Like Burkhead, Lewis will be used as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher.

The tricky part about the Patriots’ running back situation is almost every back could cut into any other player’s role. Burkhead, Gillislee and Lewis all are solid ball-carriers, and Burkhead, Lewis and White can all catch the ball out of the backfield. Gillislee likely will mostly take first- and second-down snaps, while White will only be on the field in passing situations.

There are only so many touches to go around, and no back is significantly enough better than the others that he deserves to receive 250 to 300 touches this season, barring injuries.

Gillislee, because of his value on the goal line, likely still has the most fantasy value. But Burkhead potentially could vulture some touchdowns and early-down carries, and he’s definitely the best value where he’s currently ranked.

Fantasy football owners have long been wary of Belichick’s running back corps. This year is even more difficult to predict than normal.

Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images

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