Cracking the code of any NFL backfield is one of the most important aspects of fantasy football, but it’s also one of the toughest and often impossible. Some coaches change their minds on a weekly basis, while others constantly defy logic by refusing to change the depth chart regardless of performance. When you’re faced with a tough decision between two players and can’t decide who to start, it’s crucial to know gameplan tendencies of the coaching staffs. For example, if the opponent is stout against the run, you don’t want to lean towards someone who is volume-dependent if the coaching staff is known to pivot easily.
Applying this logic is also incredibly important for your fantasy drafts. If an NFL Team drafted a rookie in the 2nd Round, having an understanding of how that coaching staff likes to manage that position historically can be a big advantage. Just like the Raiders this year, the Seahawks took a running back in the 1st Round last year, but it’s safe to assume that someone like rookie Josh Jacobs will be utilized differently than Rashaad Penny was in 2018. The primary reason for that is the differences in tendencies we’ve seen from Pete Carroll and Jon Gruden.
But what happens when you run into a coach that has historically baffled fantasy owners time and time again? Do you trust him to repeat his tendencies from the year before, or do you avoid him completely? Good question.
Let’s take a look at what to expect from Bill Belichick and the Patriots backfield this season:
Sony Michel – ADP: 4.10
The 2018 rookie stud from Georgia turned a lot of heads in the fantasy community last year when the Patriots broke their own mold and took a positional player with their 1st Round pick. Michel had some minor injuries throughout the year, so we didn’t get to see the full picture of how the Patriots wanted to use him until late in the season. During the NFL playoffs, Michel averaged 23 carries per game (a pace that would be good enough for the most in New England history by a wide margin). He finished the playoffs with 112 yards per game and maintained a healthy 4.7 yards per carry. It’s a very small sample size of course, but his regular-season usage was shockingly high as well.
Not only did Michel lead the backfield all year, but he was also one of the most heavily utilized RBs in Bill Belichick’s entire coaching career. Since 2005, there have only been three players to see more than 200 carries in the Patriots offense. First, there was Steven Ridley in 2012, followed by the infamous LeGarrette Blount season in 2016, then Sony Michel last year.
Oh…. did I mention that he only played in 13 games?
Michel was utilized a lot more than many people realize and he was historically efficient as well. He had the third-highest YPC in a single season of any Patriots running back over the past decade. His injury history has been well documented, but a recent report indicates that he should be back to full health for training camp. Sony Michel could end up being one of the best draft picks you can make as long as he stays on the field. The one knock on Sony Michel is lack of targets. He saw 11 total targets in 13 games. While James White is on the roster, that’s unlikely to change.
James White – ADP: 6.03
By now most of us know who James White is when it comes to fantasy football, but last year he put on a heck of a show when Michel went down. In Weeks 8 & 9 combined, he caught 16 receptions for 151 yards to go alongside his 3 touchdowns on the ground. It was very apparent that the Patriots are comfortable leaning on White and Rex Burkhead when necessary. White will never be a workhorse and unless Michel misses significant time next year, he’ll likely be delegated back to his role as a third-down specialist. There’s also a good chance that someone else on this list could take some work from him in year one so I’m avoiding White in Half PPR leagues. He will have value in Full PPR leagues, but ultimately he’s the same guy he’s always been and last year was the high point.
Rex Burkhead – Undrafted
“Sexy Rexy” has been the people’s champ in New England for a few seasons now, but his injuries have piled up in the past two years. He was placed on the IR in Week 3 last season, and all signs point to his role in the offense being a small one. It seems likely that he’s phased out as a regular staple in the backfield, especially after they drafted Damien Harris in the 3rd Round.
Damien Harris – ADP: 12.09
Even though both Michel and White are staples of the offense, it’s been well documented that Bill Belichick will change his mind and throw your fantasy hopes out the window. Based on the usage they gave Michel last year, it seems unlikely that Harris was drafted to be a bruiser. Harris has the skill and athletic profile to push for some playing time in his first season, so it’s very possible he eats up some of the work normally given to Burkhead and White. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see a Sony Michel and Damien Harris backfield in 2020, and the torch might just get passed this year.
Who to Draft?
Even though we can’t guarantee Bill Belichick will follow his own script, it’s safe to make reasonable assumptions based on the trends from his past. We should see a very healthy dosage of Sony Michel in 2019, and he’s a player worth his current draft cost in the back of the 4th Round. I’d slam the “draft” button every time if he falls to the 5th. James White has a lot of value in Full PPR leagues but he should be avoided in other formats at current draft cost. Rex Burkhead will end up as a name we slowly forget and Damien Harris could be someone remembered for years to come. The Patriots typically lean on two backs for the majority of the work and the money should be placed on Michel and White, with Harris as a high upside dark horse option.