by Alex Kurpeski
There are four words that will forever haunt the minds of vigilant fantasy football players:‘running back by committee’. Perhaps you remember when these words were uttered in reference to the Denver Broncos backfield in 2015, when a young bowling ball named C.J Anderson was poised to become a fantasy superstar only to be derailed by a timeshare with fellow backs Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson. Or maybe, your experience with this phrase came quite recently, as both the Kansas City Chiefs (in the wake of 2018’s Kareem Hunt fiasco) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (during a tumultuous 2019 season filled with injuries at the position), have teased fantasy managers with the approach in the last couple of seasons. For the last decade or so, the phrase has been a death blow to many would-be RB1’s, so let’s take a look at some backs who could be derailed by this concept.
The Patriots Backfield Will Cause Some Headaches
New England has been a notorious offender in this department, having used a stable of different backs for as long as we can remember. The team also happens to employ a variety of one dimensional backs, who could each find themselves with a role in the backfield. Let’s start at the top, with the team’s most well known names: former first-round pick Sony Michel and receiving back James White.
In 2019, this duo accounted for 70.2% of the team’s carries, with Michel holding the greatest share at 55.2%. While Michel was the majority leader in ground work, the passing down work was controlled by White who finished as the RB18 in PPR formats with 200.2 points. However, with the departure of Tom Brady, it’s possible that the team will look to employ a slightly different approach on offense in 2020. Considering Brady pumped 167 targets to his backs last season (27.2% of his pass attempts), it’s quite possible that guys like White may lose some of their fantasy value. Given Michel’s history of lower-body injuries, combined with his mediocre averages through two seasons (only 4.0 YPA for his career on 456 touches), it would be no surprise if he lost some of his touches as the lead back.
Updated Sony Michel injury history:
* ACL tear in high school
* 2017 Knee injury SEC Champ Game
* 2018 knee fluid procedure
* 2019 knee scope
* 2020 foot surgeryhttps://t.co/m9aTBP9WG9
— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) June 12, 2020
With veteran holdovers Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden expected to be on the roster bubble, the Patriots will likely take a long look at some of their younger backs during the preseason. Considering the team invested significant draft capital in him, the most intriguing name from this second tier has to be former Crimson Tide standout Damien Harris. While Harris was essentially redshirted during his rookie campaign (he saw only four total carries), the fact organization spent a third-round pick to acquire him just one year after taking Michel in round one speaks to the team’s opinion of him. Harris is as close to a three-down back as there is on the team’s depth chart, so if they were to magically drop the committee approach, he would be my bet to be the lead back.
Beyond Harris, there is another notable youngster who may be a near lock for a spot on the roster. Former University of Arizona standout J.J Taylor is far from the biggest guy on the roster (he stands 5’5, 160 lbs), but what he lacks in bulk he makes up for with dynamic elusiveness in the open field. While he’s not quite Tarik Cohen, Taylor is a similar type of player, as he knows how to use his size to his advantage, often scurrying underneath would-be tacklers. As we have seen before, the Patriots have a knack for maximizing the talents of similarly undersized receiving backs, having produced quality fantasy campaigns from guys like White, Dion Lewis, and Danny Woodhead in the past. The loss of Brady definitely hurts the value of a receiving back in this offense, although it’s likely the Patriots offense will still influence second-year QB Jarrett Stidham to rely on his backs as a checkdown option.
It’s hard to say just what to expect from this offense, especially considering the fact that it will be operating with a brand new signal-caller following two decades of superstar play from a first ballot Hall of Famer. In order to keep Stidham looking strong this season, OC Josh McDaniels will likely run a lot of play action looks while also feeding his backs in order to manage the clock.
Below is a predictive distribution of what we may come to expect from the Patriots backfield (barring no injuries):
- 703 rushing yards
- 196 ATT
- 5 rushing TDs
- 13 receptions
- 1 receiving TD
- 105 receiving yards
- 129.8 fantasy points (RB32-42)
- 220 rushing yards
- 60 ATT
- 1 rushing TD
- 53 receptions
- 3 receiving TDs
- 603 receiving yards
- 159.3 fantasy points (RB25-30)
- 464 rushing yards
- 112 ATT
- 3 rushing TDs
- 8 receptions
- 0 receiving TD
- 67 receiving yards
- 79.1 fantasy points (RB54-65)
- 123 rushing yards
- 33 ATT
- 1 rushing TD
- 16 receptions
- 1 receiving TD
- 181 receiving yards
- 58.4 fantasy points (RB60-70)
- 18 rushing yards
- 5 ATT
- 0 rushing TD
- 2 receptions
- 1 receiving TD
- 9 receiving yards
- 10.7 fantasy points (RB100+)
I believe Michel and Harris will either share the duties as the power back in the rotation from the start, or Michel will slowly lose those touches to Harris as the season progresses. In addition, Taylor will get a bit of a run as a change-of-pace option, pushing Burkhead off the roster in the preseason. As for Bolden, I believe he might stick around due to his special teams prowess, getting some work in a mop-up role. This data is mostly speculative, although based on what we saw from the team last season, this is how I believe the committee will shake out.
In short, stay away from Patriots running backs.