The NFL's Best Breakout Running Back Candidate for 2017

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJuly 13, 2017

New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee catches a pass during an NFL football organized team activities practice Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
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When the New England Patriots traded a seventh-round pick and running back Jeff Demps to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for running back LeGarrette Blount in April 2013, Blount had become a non-factor in Tampa Bay’s offense. After rushing for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries in his rookie season of 2010, Blount saw his carries and overall production diminish in each of the two following seasons. But he rushed for 772 yards on 153 carries for the Pats in 2013 (that same 5.0 yards per carry) and, after an unsuccessful stint with the Steelers, returned to New England. He capped his career off there in 2016, when he led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns—the most any back has had in a season since Adrian Peterson’s 18 in 2009.

But Blount was deemed replaceable after that season, signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots had another back on their radar, though. In April, they tendered a two-year, $6.4 million offer to Buffalo Bills restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee, an offer the Bills refused to match.

Buffalo got the Patriots’ 2017 fifth-round pick in return, but it may have missed out on a lot more. And this could be deja vu for Bills fans, who are probably still smarting from watching Chris Hogan move from Buffalo to Foxborough after the Bills refused to match the Patriots’ three-year, $12 million offer and he became one of the most effective deep receivers in the NFL. Yes, for the second time in two seasons, the Patriots plucked a player with great offensive potential from the Bills roster, and the Gillislee transaction could hurt even more.

In 2016, in relief of and in tandem with LeSean McCoy, who missed time with knee and ankle injuries, Gillislee rushed 101 times for 577 yards (a league-leading 5.7 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. He also caught nine passes for 50 yards and another touchdown. He finished first overall in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metrics for running backs and fourth in FO’s season-cumulative efficiency metrics.

According to Pro Football Focus’ charting, only Oakland’s Jalen Richard and Miami’s Jay Ajayi averaged more yards after contact than Gillislee’s 3.34, and he was responsible for 16 missed tackles on those 101 carries. And his 10 carries of 15-plus yards placed him behind only McCoy and Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage metric.

By all statistical accounts, and with the tape to back it up, Mike Gillislee looks every bit the part of a player ready for a series of breakout seasons.

Then again, the Bills weren’t the only team to let him slip through their grasp. Selected by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, Gillislee gained a total of 21 yards on six carries in his rookie year and was never heard from in Miami again.

Released by the Dolphins in September 2015, he was then waived by the Cardinals after a brief stint on their practice squad and signed by the Bills in November. He didn’t get much action that season, rushing just 47 times for 267 yards and three touchdowns, but he gave a precursor of what was to come with a 60-yard touchdown run against the Redskins in Week 15 and a 50-yarder against the Cowboys in Week 16. Gillislee became the first Bills back to rush for touchdowns of 50 yards or more in consecutive weeks since Antowain Smith did it in 1997.

On both plays (click the links for video), Gillislee benefited from breakdowns in run defense at the second level, but he also set up those breakdowns by adapting at the line of scrimmage and using his lateral quickness to bounce from the closed gap to the open gap. And once he was in the open field, he turned on the jets and showed good open-field acceleration.

Fast-forward to 2016, when Gillislee won the backup job after Karlos Williams was cut for showing up out of shape. The Patriots knew full well how good Gillislee was, because he was at his best against them in Week 8. In a 41-25 loss, Gillislee ran 12 times for 85 yards and a touchdown, adding three catches for nine yards. And it didn’t take long for him to make a difference—he broke off a 28-yard run to the left side on the second play from scrimmage.

Here, Gillislee is the lead back in a Pistol formation, and when quarterback Tyrod Taylor hands him the ball, he’s got the outside of the formation on his mind right away. Everything you want from a back on a long outside run is here—the decisiveness to accelerate outside, the body control to reset his body once he’s made the cut and the second-level speed and strength to get past his blockers and break tackles from linebacker Dont’a Hightower (No. 54), cornerback Eric Rowe (No. 25) and safety Duron Harmon (No. 30) before safety Patrick Chung (No. 23) finally takes him down. It happens over and over, and it’s true in just about every case—if you want to come at Gillislee with a bunch of arm tackles, that’s not going to work.

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Late in the second quarter, Gillislee broke off this 16-yard run, and the most remarkable thing about this play is that after he takes the handoff from Taylor and moves left to right, he runs into a wall of Patriots defenders and his own blockers—in the second frame of this play, he’s so backed up that he’s actually hidden behind left guard Richie Incognito, who’s pulling to his right. But Gillislee is able to work past that, break another tackle from Hightower (who, by the way, is one of the NFL’s best run defenders) and move into the secondary. At two points in this play, Gillislee has to explode laterally to escape defenders and keep the play going—first, to evade Hightower and then to get away from Harmon. That level of lateral explosives is a rare trait.

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Gillislee also gained 72 yards on 14 carries against the Bengals in a 16-12 win in Week 11, and this 13-yard run early in the third quarter is a great example of how he’s able to take what might be a short gain for many other backs and extend the play with his balance and strength. What starts out as an outside run with right guard John Miller (No. 76) pulling to the outside becomes something else when Gillislee takes the play inside to avoid safety George Iloka (No. 43) and linebacker Vincent Rey (No. 57). When he hits the second level, he blows off an arm-tackle attempt by defensive tackle Domata Peko (No. 94) and blasts through for a few more yards before cornerback Adam Jones finally takes him down. Here, you can once again see Gillislee’s quickness to change direction as he transitions to the second level and his second gear in short spaces.

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This 14-yarder later in the third quarter shows how well Gillislee can turn the corner to either side, reset his body and hit the boosters once he’s outside the numbers. The first thing you may notice about this play is that it nearly ends with negative yardage. Defensive tackle Pat Sims (No. 92) nearly has Gillislee in his grasp as Gillislee is still deciding which way to go. But he eludes that tackle attempt and gets linebacker Karlos Dansby (No. 56) off balance as he turns the corner. Then, he’s able to bang out a few more yards at the boundary before linebacker Vontaze Burfict takes him down. With a less talented back in there, this could have easily been a busted play.

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Moreover, Gillislee is an ideal fit in New England’s offense, because he successfully ran in different concepts with the Bills—everything from zone slides to pure, old-school gap blocking. The Patriots tend to switch up their blocking based on their opponents, so this should be a perfect mix of player and schemes.

The Patriots also like to have different backs for different roles. Early word from those in the know presumes that Gillislee is the favorite to fill the goal-line role Blount used to have, but I think he has the potential to be the best running back this franchise has had since Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 yards in 2004.

So yes, once again, the Patriots got richer in the offseason…and once again, the Bills were the victims.

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