Mike Gillislee was supposed to be the replacement for LeGarrette Blount that the New England Patriots needed in 2017. He averaged an astonishing 5.7 yards per carry with the Buffalo Bills in 2018, plowing through defenders with just as much power as Blount and more speed. He seemed to be a classic Patriots free agency find: pluck a starting-caliber backup off of some other team, give him the opportunity he needed to shine, and then let him run roughshod over the league. It happened with Blount, who became a critical component of two Super Bowl winners as the team’s designated battering ram. It was supposed to happen with Gillislee as well, especially after he scored three touchdowns on opening night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
That’s because he was largely inefficient. He couldn’t reach even 4.0 yards per carry in his first three games, and he steadily lost touches to Dion Lewis. By the end of October, Gillislee was out of the rotation entirely. He didn’t play in November. He played one game in December, and sat for the team’s entire playoff run. What was supposed to be his golden opportunity to prove himself as a starting running back on the NFL’s best team turned into a nightmare. If you can’t make it with New England, you can’t make it anywhere. Gillislee was seen essentially as a backup coming into the offseason, someone who would stick around as roster insurance.
For one shining moment, he might have had a chance to to fight his way back onto the field. Lewis left the Patriots for the Tennessee Titans, and with Rex Burkhead unsigned, a gaping hole existed at running back. As James White is functionally a wide receiver who happens to line up in the back field, Gillislee was the only runner the team even had. If the Patriots had faith in him, they might have kept things that way.
They didn’t. Burkhead was retained, which wouldn’t figure to have a huge impact on Gillislee besides relieving him of passing-down opportunities. Jeremy Hill likely does the same on running downs, as he has historically been the sort of power back the Patriots expected Gillislee to be. To rub salt in the wound, the Patriots are now working out another player in that archetype: New York Giants back Orleans Darkwa. The Patriots never carry multiple power runners on their roster. Blount always shared a backfield with players like Lewis, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. The Patriots value versatility in their running backs above all else. They already have two power runners on the team. And now they’re working out a third?
This seemingly spells doom for Gillislee, and rightfully so. If you can only gain 4.0 yards per carry with Tom Brady as your quarterback, you probably aren’t a very good running back. Gillisslee was a worthwhile experiment, but he just hasn’t panned out for the Patriots. They seem to be going in another direction with their backfield, one that will eventually see him released back into free agency.