What if I told you that you could get a sneak peek at any running back, and reveal exactly one game from that season, and ask you to try to envision the rest of his year. You could see how many rush attempts, yards, touchdowns, and catches that player had, for just one game.
Some game results would be instructive, others would be fairly benign in telling you how the rest of the season goes. Last year alone, for example, there were 41 games where a back finished with between 70 and 90 yards from scrimmage and exactly one touchdown. The identity of those backs ranges from Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy to Alfred Blue, Christine Michael, and Peyton Barber. All that line would tell you is that the back was a starter for that game.
But some results are unique, and can tell a story far beyond what you think. So let’s talk about Mike Gillislee of the Patriots.
Last night, he had 15 rush attempts, 45 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns, and zero catches. That led to much celebration for those drafting Gillislee.
Those touchdowns made for a nice fantasy week if you started him, but it’s foolish to project multiple touchdowns on a weekly basis (LeGarrette Blount led the league with 18, or just over 1 a game, a year ago). I had him as a flex start in PPR (RB25-36 range) precisely because of concerns over his number of touches and likely low reception rate. Among backs who scored 3 rushing touchdowns on opening day, only Jerome Bettis’ 5 rushes for 1 yard masterpiece had fewer yards (most backs that have high TD totals also gain yards).
So, what happens if we look at that snapshot of Gillislee? How have backs who had a game like that ended up? I found 14 games since the merger where a back had (a) between 10-20 rush attempts, (b) 25 and 65 yards from scrimmage, (c) fewer than 20 receiving yards and 2 catches or less, and (d) 3 rushing touchdowns.
Here’s the summary of where they finished in Fantasy Points (non-PPR) and RB position rank (also non-PPR):
The average was 124 fantasy points, and a ranking of 30th. This is non-PPR, so the relative ranking would be even lower in a PPR scoring system, since we are looking at backs that profile mostly as non-receivers. (James Brooks inclusion here, in the same year that Ickey Woods became famous, for putting up that stat line is an outlier).
Exactly half of the backs on that list finished with less than 100 fantasy points and outside the top 30.
What do those numbers say? They tell a story of a back who is not a stud workhorse back, but who got goal line carries. When you get that many touchdowns while getting that few yards, you generally play for a pretty good team who puts you in a position to get those touchdowns (The teams averaged 9.2 wins on that list, and 4 of them reached the Super Bowl).
But, but, but … Gillislee is the plug-and-replace guy for LeGarrette Blount, right? Yes, and no. He obviously got the goal line carries and short yardage work (and was stuffed twice). You should try to find someone who believes that he has Blount 2016 upside (Blount finished #7 in points thanks to all the TDs).
Last night, James White got almost as many touches as Gillislee, and set a career high in rush attempts in the first game A.B. (after Blount). White is going to be a PPR factor, and Burkhead and Lewis also saw work. Here is a comparison of Gillislee after his first game, compared to how Blount was used last year.
50% of RB Rush Attempts
44% of RB Touches
42% of RB Rushing Yards
31% of RB Total Yards
BLOUNT IN 2016
74% of RB Rush Attempts
63% of RB Touches
72% of RB Rushing Yards
52% of RB Total Yards
That’s a 20-25% drop across categories. Blount was a non-receiving feature back in 2016 who happened to play on a very good team and got all the touchdowns also. After one game, Gillislee looks like a committee back with a goal line role, and who is unlikely to expand that role (White looked like the best back and will remain a weapon as a receiver, and Burkhead looked capable of expanding his role and if anything eating into Gillislee).
He’s not going to finish with 48 touchdowns. Most games won’t see Brady throw 0 touchdowns and three different goal line scores (Blount did it once last year). Gillislee became the 13th different running back of the Brady/Belichick era to score multiple rushing touchdowns in a single game. Touchdowns are more unpredictable than yards, and Gillislee will likely only have value when scoring multiple times.
It all depends on how others view him, but if you can find an owner who sees him as a Top 20 option, swing a sell-high deal for a feature back who gets good yards but no touchdowns after this week.