This off-season, the Patriots made a trio of moves that raises some questions about one of the major narratives surrounding the Eagles offense.
First, the Pats signed running back Rex Burkhead to a one-year deal that will pay him $3.15 million, more than they’ve paid any running back since Fred Taylor. Then, they parted with a fifth-round pick to sign running back Mike Gilislee to a two-year deal at an average of $3.2 million per season. Finally, they said goodbye to LeGarrette Blount, who signed with the Eagles for $1.25 million, with only $400,000 guaranteed.
Here in Philadelphia, the Blount signing was heralded as an obvious solution to the Eagles’ short-yardage woes (in 2016, only six teams had a lower conversion rate on third- and fourth-down runs with three or fewer yards to go). The veteran certainly looks like a short-yardage back, and his 18 touchdowns in 2016 looked like the production of a short-yardage back. But there’s an obvious question: If Blount was so effective in his role, why did the Patriots feel the need to spend five times as much as they could’ve paid Blount to bring in a couple of backs to replace him?
A look at his performance provides an obvious answer: In short-yardage situation, he really wasn’t all that good. He wasn’t awful. But he also wasn’t good enough to support the assumption that he will be a game-changing upgrade over the triumvirate of Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Ryan Mathews.
Take a look at Blount’s production on third and short and fourth and short. He carried the ball 20 times when the Patriots needed three or fewer yards for a first down, and he gained first downs on 13 of them. That’s better than the Eagles running backs were, but not by much:
Sproles: 8 carries, 5 first downs
Mathews: 12 carries, 5 first downs
Smallwood: 4 carries, 3 first downs
Blount in 2016: 20 carries, 13 first downs
Eagles RBs in 2016: 24 carries, 13 first downs
Blount’s conversion rate ranked 27th out of 49 running backs with at least six carries on third and fourth with three or fewer yards to go. Sproles ranked 29th; Mathews, 46th.
But look at what Gilislee and Burkhead did by comparison.
Gilislee: 16 carries, 13 first downs
Burkhead: 6 carries, 6 first downs
On 22 combined carries, they gained 19 first downs.
Among players with at least six carries, Burkhead ranked tied for first, and Gilslee ranked 7th.
Likewise, look at what happened around the goal line.
Goal-to-goal, inside opponents’ three-yard line.
Gilislee/Burkhead: 7 carries, 6 touchdowns
Blount: 24 carries, 12 touchdowns
Eagles RBs: 17 carries, 6 touchdowns
There’s something to be said for volume, and Blount’s 24 carries inside the 3 were by far the most in the NFL. No other running back had more than 17. His success rate was ordinary, ranking 13th among 28 backs with at least six carries, but it was way better than Mathews’.
NFL running back performance inside opponents’ three-yard-line, 2016 (min. 10 attempts)
The Eagles clearly needed to address short-yardage rushing, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t in a better spot with Blount than they were with Mathews and Co., particularly around the goal line. But it’s also true that you get what you pay for, and there’s a reason the Eagles were able to get Blount at one-fifth the price of the Gilislee/Burkhead tandem.