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With Burkhead and Gillislee signings, Patriots buy into analytics

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during warm-ups prior to Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

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At a time when teams across the NFL are showing little to no interest in most of the big-name running backs available in free agency, the Patriots have signed two running backs. And in doing so, they’ve shown they’re at the forefront of the analytics movement, even if they don’t like to say so.

Today the Patriots signed restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet that they hope the Bills won’t match, and previously the Patriots signed running back Rex Burkhead away from the Bengals. What do Gillislee and Burkhead have in common? The average fan may not know a lot about them, but the analytics people love them.

Analytics website ranked Gillislee as the most efficient running back in the NFL last year, and Burkhead as No. 2. Analytics website NumberFire also had Gillislee first and Burkhead second. Analyst Warren Sharp’s metrics had Gillislee first and Burkhead second in success rate, and Burkhead first and Gillislee second in the fewest “missed yards per attempt,” or how close they came to being successful on the plays that weren’t quite good enough to quality as successful.

The various analytics websites have slight differences in the way they rate players, but they all tend to support the same traits in a running back, namely consistently helping the team pick up first downs. Both Gillislee and Burkhead were excellent at picking up first downs last season, gaining first downs more than 30 percent of the time. Meanwhile, for all the focus on LeGarrette Blount and his 18 touchdowns last year, Blount picked up first downs on just 22.4 percent of his carries. The analytics models say Blount was actually a mediocre running back last year, and that may explain why the Patriots are willing to let Blount walk and turn their attention to Gillislee and Burkhead.

Unlike the Browns, who are open about the fact that they’re building their team with an analytics approach, the Patriots keep quiet about their belief in analytics. We noted last year that Bill Belichick was dismissive about analytics websites, saying he doesn’t look at them. And he probably doesn’t, because he doesn’t need to: He has staffers who stay on top of the latest in analytics, and those staffers do read those websites. One of Belichick’s most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before he worked for Belichick, first in Cleveland and then in New England. Many of the methods that sports statistical analysts use are rooted in the same methods used to analyze economic data. Adams understands both, and that makes him valuable to Belichick.

The interest in analytics goes to the very top of the Patriots’ organization. The Patriots’ official website wrote last year that “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft.”

As the Browns struggled through their first rebuilding season under the new analytics-based regime last season, some observers scoffed that the Moneyball approach wouldn’t work in the NFL. And maybe it won’t work in Cleveland. But it’s working in New England, whether the Patriots say so publicly or not.