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How to Approach the Patriots Backfield in 2019

Success for a running back in fantasy football is largely about volume. Workhorse backs who dominate snaps are ideal, committees who rotate depending on the game script are a problem. Less certain backfields start to become much more prevalent in the middle rounds and beyond in fantasy drafts, and deciding how to approach each one can massively impact whether you hit on your picks.

The New England Patriots might be the poster child for unpredictable backfields across the NFL. They are regularly touted by the fantasy community as a group to avoid in drafts due to how the team seems to go with a situational approach to running back usage (and even then, a hot hand could emerge a la Jonas Gray to completely muddle the picture). Unfortunately, the Patriots have also finished as a top-five offense in points scored for nine consecutive seasons, making them a prolific crew for fantasy prosperity.

What should fantasy owners expect from this backfield in 2019? What are the implications for draft day? These questions will be hopefully answered as I provide a brief of the Patriots running back group ahead of fantasy drafts for this upcoming season.

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The Pats Ground Attack Had a Resurgence

In what has traditionally been a high volume passing offense, the Patriots morphed into a rush-heavy attack as the 2018 season progressed. What's more, they did it with a great deal of success. After averaging 28.7 attempts per game and 116.1 yards rushing over their first nine games, New England started to rely more heavily on its stable of running backs to get the job done. The increase in attempts per game to 31.4 over their next seven contests may seem paltry, but their efficiency increased to the tune of 141.7 yards per game. When the regular season was said and done, New England had the third most rush attempts in the league.

Head coach Bill Belichick carried that offensive philosophy to the playoffs where the Patriots averaged 38 attempts and 161.7 rushing yards across their three playoff games. With such success on the ground, there is little doubt that New England wants to continue to build off of what they established heading into 2019. In fact, it may be necessary to focus on running the football with the retirement of stalwart tight end Rob Gronkowski.


RB Candidates for Fantasy Owners

Fantasy owners are undoubtedly only looking at three of the Patriots running backs to potentially add to their rosters: Sony Michel, James White, and rookie Damien Harris.

Michel is best characterized as a conventional first and second-down back in this offense after topping 200 carries in his rookie season. Our most recent memory of Michel was his two-yard scamper into the end zone to score the lone touchdown of Super Bowl LIII. His heavy usage and productivity in the postseason, 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns in three games, is likely to play into recency bias for fantasy owners who think he is undoubtedly worth his fourth/fifth-round average draft position.

However, it may come as a surprise to find out that pass-catching specialist White was on the field for nearly twice as many snaps as Michel in 2018. As Tom Brady's security blanket, White has excelled as a check-down and screen option with at least 55 receptions in all of his last three seasons. Some would argue that Michel's heavy usage in the playoffs was largely attributable to White dominating snaps over the Patriots' last five games. After all, Michel did not surpass 20 touches in any of his December games. The absence of Rob Gronkowski could further force offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to focus more on a quick-strike passing game and give fantasy owners a great return on their fifth/sixth-round pick. That said, White only received double-digit carries twice in 19 games last season and most of his value lies in PPR formats.

Throwing a wrench in the mix is the third-round selection of Alabama running back Damien Harris in this year's draft. Whether the motivation behind the pick was out of concern for Michel's knee (of which he has a risk of re-injury) or adding depth, Harris would likely fill in the early-down role that Michel currently occupies if an injury were to occur and his value would be through the roof.


How Should This Backfield Be Handled On Draft Day?

The reality is that fantasy owners will never get the certainty they want for the Patriots backfield so long as Bill Belichick is the head coach. While Josh McDaniels may continue to utilize a run scheme with heavy gap blocking that is perfect for Michel, White's role as a pass-catcher isn't going anywhere and neither are his snaps. The two backs offer a yin and yang situation for fantasy purposes. Michel has a slight edge in standard formats while White's value lies in PPR leagues.

As the Patriots take on different offensive identities to conquer their opponents, it's important to keep in mind that one such identity in their repertoire is a dangerous rushing attack. James Develin is a battering ram at the fullback position and the Patriots are one of the few teams in the league that employs a traditional fullback like Develin in the I-formation. While Michel should be the beneficiary of a rejuvenated commitment to the run, there is a scenario where Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead average ten carries per game. It's that risk which prevents me from overpaying (that is, leapfrogging a round early) for Michel or White on draft day. That being said, if either slip a round later than expected, they could become significant value picks that would be hard to ignore.

Know your league's scoring settings, identify the ADP where each back is going, and let the draft unfold as it does with an eye to not spending too much on a New England Patriots running back.

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