FOXBORO — In the real world, Ezekiel Elliott's new contract with the Cowboys will line his pockets and ratchet up the expectations in Dallas. Online, it'll stoke the flames of football's most interminable debate: Are running backs worth it?
Are they worth high-end contracts like the ones given to Elliott, Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley? Are they worth being selected at the top of the draft when there are talented quarterbacks available, as Saquon Barkley was when he went No. 2 overall in 2018?
The numbers would suggest that paying someone like Elliott $90 million over six years isn't the best investment strategy. The numbers would suggest that going with a running back at the top of the draft instead of taking a shot on a potential franchise quarterback is flawed.
But take a look at what the Patriots have done at the running back position.
Even after Elliott got his new deal, it's Bill Belichick who's spending more cap dollars on his running back room than anyone else. According to Spotrac, the Patriots have $12.23 million in active roster cap space devoted to their five running backs this season, which is tops in the league. (Over The Cap points out the Patriots are the third-biggest cap-dollar spenders on the running back position this season behind the Niners and Texans, whose highest-paid backs are on injured reserve and not active. Either way, New England is heavily invested at that spot.)
But the Patriots have doled out their money in a way that breaks from other teams who are in the top-five when it comes to running back spending. Unlike the Rams with Gurley or the Jets with Bell, the Patriots have taken a many-hands-makes-light-work approach.
Last year's first-rounder Sony Michel counts $2.19 million against the cap this season. James White carries a cap hit of $4.63 million. Rex Burkhead's cap number is $3 million. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden counts $1.7 against the cap in 2019, and third-round rookie Damien Harris counts $716,534 against the cap.
Despite having so much invested in running backs this season, the Patriots don't have a single player with a top-10 cap hit at the position. They do have three inside the top-25, though, as White ranks 13th, Burkhead 19th and Michel is 24th.
But why? In a league that has seemingly proven that running back production is replaceable — take a look at how well James Conner ran in Pittsburgh last season in place of Bell, or how well C.J. Anderson ran for the Rams — why would the Patriots be shelling out more to running backs than the rest of the league?
Throwing numbers at that group makes sense for myriad reasons for Belichick. Given the injury rate at the position, given that Tom Brady is 42, and given that it's in the team's best interest to keep Brady upright, having several capable backs to carry the load for a run-heavy attack is logical.
Still, this also seems like an instance of Belichick, an economics major at Wesleyan, finding another NFL market inefficiency.
Despite Barkley going No. 2 overall and Elliott getting paid top dollar, it looks like the league has generally agreed upon the fact that paying one back huge money isn't wise. Look at what happened to Gurley's health soon after signing and it's not all that difficult to see why the Chargers would hesitate to hand Melvin Gordon an exorbitant salary. The Jets fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after he inked Bell, and there were rumblings that new head coach Adam Gase wasn't thrilled that Bell was on his roster at that price.
Instead, what's apparently about to become more popular across the league is loading up on tight ends and deploying the "12 personnel" packages the Patriots fell in love with in 2010. In a copycat league, it would make sense for teams to try to do what Belichick did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago, or what the Eagles are doing with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, or what the Colts are doing with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron.
We'll see if that becomes reality in 2019, as the average cap dollars spent at tight end — when you look at those dollars as a percentage of the overall cap — haven't veered much in the last six years. (It's consistently hovered around 3 to 4 percent across the league.)
But if teams start using "12 personnel" more often, if they start adding bodies to their tight end rooms, and if they start handing their top tight ends bigger contracts, then it looks like the Patriots will be on the opposite end of that trend. At least at the moment.
With only Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse on the roster right now, the Patriots rank 31st in tight end salary cap spending for 2019. Even when Ben Watson returns from suspension, his $2.46 million cap hit will only bump the Patriots to 25th in cap spending at the position this season. They led the league in tight end spending last year and were fourth in 2017 with Gronkowski on the roster.
So while the league might be leaning toward using tight ends more frequently and potentially paying them more as a result, the Patriots appear to have gone in the opposite direction post-Gronk. While the league has information that would suggest running backs are replaceable, the Patriots are investing in them more and more; they were seventh in running back cap spending in 2018 and fourth in 2017.
How things play out this season will tell us how Belichick's backs-over-tight-ends approach will work. But we can say this: At least he's consistent. He consistently changes his approach, even when he's had success. He consistently shifts gears in a league that has long been plagued by groupthink.
Zigging when others zag has worked for Belichick before. It worked when he turned to a 3-4 front in his early days with the Patriots. It worked when he hammered "12 personnel" more than most. It's worked as he's leaned on a fullback while the NFL has become obsessed with the spread. How he's allocating his resources at running back and tight end just seems to be the latest example.
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