Previously in the series:
Dion Lewis out. Sony Michel in. That's not the extent of the changes the Patriots made to their backfield this offseason, but it's the headliner. Lewis had what was far and away his best season as a pro in 2017, and it earned him a nice deal down in Tennessee: 896 yards rushing on 5.0 yards per attempt, and another 214 yards receiving on 32 receptions, with nine total scores. He had trouble getting on the field early in the year, if you remember, something that irked him, but when he took over lead back duties he made the most of his opportunity, establishing himself as one of the most elusive backs in the league. His 42 missed tackles forced as a runner were just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell, according to Pro Football Focus . . . and Bell took 141 more handoffs. The upshot? The 5-foot-8 water bug back leaves some big shoes to fill. Michel is a very different player. He checked in at 5-foot-11, 214 pounds at the combine in February, and at Georgia he looked more like a slashing, aggressive runner who's more likely to run through arm tackles rather than side-step them. But the way he could help make up for Lewis' loss is by serving as a true all-purpose player. He may have been the best pass-protector in this year's draft class, and he's a very capable receiver. The element of unpredictability Lewis provided the Patriots offense when he lurked in the backfield will still exist with Michel back there. Same goes for Rex Burkhead, who's back after re-upping on the one-year deal he in New England last offseason. He played in just 10 games due to injury but earned Tom Brady's trust quickly, and when he was healthy the Patriots weren't afraid to heave the football upon him as both a runner and a receiver. Burkhead ended up being targeted in the passing game or taking a handoff on 100 of the 195 snaps he played in the regular season. James White, headed into his fifth year with the Patriots, has become the leader of the group and should have his third-down role locked down. There are few players Brady trusts more in the passing game, and there's a reason. White was less likely to drop a pass than any other back in the league last year, coughing up just one out of 57 catchable targets in 2017, per PFF. Also back is Mike Gillislee, who may be vying for a big-back role with former Bengal Jeremy Hill. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden returns after re-signing this offseason, and undrafted rookie Ralph Webb out of Vanderbilt gives running backs coach Ivan Fears another accomplished SEC player in the room for depth. James Develin -- we'll include him here even though he actually meets more with the tight ends -- is back as well and just signed a new deal.
As the 31st overall pick this year, Michel's spot on the roster is locked in. White and Burkhead are sure things as well. And, of course, let's put Develin in this category. The Patriots carried six backs (including Develin) heading into the Super Bowl in February, which was the number they held onto for most of last season. (Bolden didn't make the team out of training camp but was added later and reclaimed his role as a core special-teamer.) So with three running backs and one fullback considered safe bets for the roster, that leaves four players potentially competing for two spots. And that's only if the Patriots want to set aside a running back spot for someone who's going to contribute mostly on special teams. Bolden could be competing with other kicking-game specialists for a job, leaving Gillislee and Hill to battle for big-back duties. Webb seems like insurance for the team should they have an need a back with some sub capabilities. He had 68 catches during his career at Vanderbilt.
WHO'S DOING WHAT
It's too easy to look at Lewis' departure and Michel's arrival and assume that will be a one-for-one swap this season. How Michel adapts to the pro game and the Patriots offense will dictate how much time he gets. So will injuries. If Burkhead can stay healthy, he could see a huge uptick in work in 2018 -- particularly if the team taps into his abilities as a receiver with Julian Edelman currently facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Odds are Michel, Burkhead and White (the favorite to take on third-down and hurry-up work) will split the majority of the workload by some unpredictable percentage that is sure to infuriate fantasy owners everywhere. Then there's Gillislee and Hill. Both players are looking for bounce-back seasons. Hill (6-1, 230) played in seven games and carried just 37 times for Cincinnati last year. Gillislee (5-11, 215) played in nine games, averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and spent a good chunk of 2017 as a healthy scratch. The Patriots have been steadfast in their belief of the importance of having a traditional big back on the roster, whether it was Gillislee, LeGarrette Blount or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But might Gillislee's season last year convince them that they can get by without one? Michel runs hard and is about the same size as Gillislee. Burkhead isn't tiny (5-10, 210) and was trusted with goal-line responsibilities at different points last season. How the Patriots choose to fill out the back-end of the depth chart here will be interesting, but not quite as interesting as trying to track how players like Michel, Burkhead and White will be deployed when healthy. Josh McDaniels isn't afraid to get creative, and if he feels like it would create mismatches, it wouldn't be totally unexpected to see the Patriots use more two-back packages than ever before. It's a talented group, and if all three of their top players are healthy, it'd be difficult to keep any of them off the field for long stretches.