We all had a good time dunking on Giants GM Dave Gettleman a few weeks back, after Gettleman didn’t hesitate to draft running back Saquon Barkley before shaking his cane at all the analytics eggheads who questioned the long-term value of selecting a running back with the No. 2 overall pick. It’s true that the passing game has never been more integral to NFL offenses, and that running backs tend to have short shelf lives. But running backs also continue to be important, and the best approach is to stack the position with several of them. Which is a blueprint that’s been drawn up by (who else?) the Patriots.
Take a look at this year’s draft. For the first time since 2012, three backs were chosen in the first round: Barkley to the Giants at No. 2, Rashaad Penny to the Seahawks at No. 27, and Sony Michel to the Patriots at No. 31. Yes, the Patriots—the franchise that has spent nearly two decades dominating a league that’s designed for parity—also used a first-rounder on a running back. Yet that pick fits a pattern, and it hits upon a market inefficiency. There may not be value in spending a lot on a veteran running back these days. But the Patriots find value in the position by hoarding multiple backs that can be deployed in the passing game—if they can do it without splurging on any one of them.
First, let’s back up to the criticism of the Giants’ selection of Barkley. My own post poking fun at Gettleman had less to do with the pick itself—I noted that Barkley could indeed become a generational player—than with Gettleman’s refusal to entertain trade offers to load up on draft capital, in addition to Gettleman’s condescending dismissal of the math geeks. And by nabbing Barkley instead of a quarterback, Gettleman has let it be known he’s all-in on 37-year-old Eli Manning, at least for 2018, which ... okay. My critique of the Barkley pick also focused on Barkley’s potential long-term value, which figures to depreciate, at least based on where the veteran market for the position is at the moment. But maybe the Giants need not worry about whether Barkley still has enough tread on his tires once his rookie contract is up. As Robert Mays put it for The Ringer:
Worrying about any non-quarterback’s second contract on draft day is like cutting off a first date five minutes in because a person doesn’t seem like marriage material. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If Barkley emerges as a dual-threat contributor and creates matchup issues in the passing game while hammering teams on the ground, his pick will pay dividends, even if the Giants express hesitance about giving him a second deal that takes him into his late 20s.
That said, my conclusion was that Gettleman would need to pay attention to analytics to get the most value out of Barkley. And the Patriots, as they tend to do in a copycat league like the NFL, are setting the trend for how to do it.
The “11” personnel, or the use of one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers, has become the league’s most common offensive player grouping. It’s allowed offenses to make use of horizontal space and to create mismatches against linebackers. This arms race has caused defenses to counter by playing nickel and dime packages with greater frequency, and to find value in versatile safeties who can function like linebackers by blending speed and cover skills with an ability to stop the run. But last season, something interesting happened:
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a shocker at all. Consider the Patriots. New England passed the ball on 56.7 percent of its offensive snaps last year—up from 53. 3 percent in 2016, when Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games—but down from 62.2 percent in 2015. But look at Brady’s targets in 2017: Three of his top seven targets were running backs, with James White (72), Rex Burkhead (36), and Dion Lewis (35) each totaling at least 35. The Pats also had Mike Gillislee to spell Lewis (180 carries) on the ground with more than 100 carries. No other team that made last year’s playoffs distributed the ball that much to that many backs, particularly in the passing game. But most of the others did use multiple backs as pass catchers:
- The Eagles, who won the Super Bowl, had four backs with at least 12 targets.
- The Jaguars, who lost to the Pats in the AFC championship game, had four backs with at least 11 targets.
- The Bills, who made the playoffs for the first time this century, had four backs with at least 10 targets.
- The Panthers, who used a first-round pick last year on running back Christian McCaffrey, had three backs with at least 10 targets.
Every other playoff team except the Steelers, who rode Le’Veon Bell almost exclusively, had at least two running backs with at least 10 targets. But the Steelers frequently lined Bell up in the slot or out wide, either initially or by motioning him out. This, too, is something the Patriots like to do. And it’s that kind of alignment—backs that can function as receivers—that best explains the Giants’ decision to select Barkley. To wit:
Warren Sharp, who charts this stuff as well as anyone on the internet, drilled down on the value of having pass catchers that aren’t wide receivers 11 months ago:
In 2017, according to Sharp’s data, the Patriots used “11” personnel on just 44 percent of their plays—tied for the fourth-fewest total in the league. New England’s second most-common personnel grouping? “21,” or two running backs, one tight end, and two wideouts, which the Pats used on 24 percent of their plays, second only to the 49ers’ 28 percent. Per Sharp, the Pats’ success rate out of “11” personnel was 47 percent. Out of “21” personnel, it was 60 percent.
For all the emphasis the Patriots put on using running backs in the passing game, they’ve been rather judicious with their spending at the position. But, as Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com noticed, the Pats have allocated more salary cap resources toward their running backs in recent years. Using data from overthecap.com, Duffy discovered the Pats have gone from near the bottom of the league in spending on running backs to close to the top. As he explained:
New England was No. 5 in positional spending at running back [in 2017], but no single Patriots back ranked in the top 15 for salary cap value.
So rather than devote all their money to one stud in the backfield, the Patriots spread it among four or five players. This makes sense for a few reasons: The Pats want their backs to do many different things, and the frequency of injuries at the position necessitates depth.
As recently as 2013, according to Duffy, the Pats spent just $3.68 million on running backs, which ranked 25th in the league. This season, after accounting for Michel’s anticipated slotted cap charge of $1.75 million, they’re expected to spend $10.74 million, which would rank fourth. And Michel is essentially replacing Lewis, who signed a more lucrative deal with the Titans in free agency. Lewis will turn 28 in September. Michel, who can provide the Pats with up to five years of cost certainty, just turned 23 in February. The rookie wage scale incentivizes teams to turn to younger, cheaper talent. This may be more true for running backs than any other position.
It’s not just the Patriots taking this approach. Think back to last year’s playoffs. The Jags, who ostensibly feature Leonard Fournette at running back, beat the Steelers in the divisional round with T.J. Yeldon catching three passes for 57 yards and fullback Tommy Bohanon catching a backbreaking touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. A week later, against the Pats, the Jags jumped out to a 14-3 lead in large part because Yeldon, Fournette, and Corey Grant combined for seven of quarterback Blake Bortles’s 15 targets, with Grant accounting for 59 receiving yards on three catches. The Pats came back to win in part because Jags head coach Doug Marrone packed up his brain by playing too conservatively in the second half, when Fournette and Yeldon were targeted just once each.
The Eagles won it all with a committee approach at running back, but especially in the postseason. Corey Clement, their No. 4 running back and an undrafted free agent rookie, was targeted just 21 times all year before the Super Bowl. But in the Super Bowl—against the Patriots—Clement was targeted five times. He caught four passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. It was the Eagles beating the Pats with a heavy dose of their own stuff.
How will the Giants use Barkley? Chances are, given Barkley’s pass-catching ability and new head coach Pat Shurmur’s track record as offensive coordinator with the Vikings, they’ll get creative with him. The Giants also still have Wayne Gallman, who caught 34 passes on 48 targets as a rookie last year, and they added Jonathan Stewart, who averaged 19 targets across his last three seasons with the Panthers. Barkley will have help. Chances are, he and the Giants may end up needing it.