With Burkhead and Gillislee signings, Patriots buy into analytics

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At a time when teams across the NFL are showing little to no interest in most of the big-name running backs available in free agency, the Patriots have signed two running backs. And in doing so, they’ve shown they’re at the forefront of the analytics movement, even if they don’t like to say so.

Today the Patriots signed restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet that they hope the Bills won’t match, and previously the Patriots signed running back Rex Burkhead away from the Bengals. What do Gillislee and Burkhead have in common? The average fan may not know a lot about them, but the analytics people love them.

Analytics website FootballOutsiders.com ranked Gillislee as the most efficient running back in the NFL last year, and Burkhead as No. 2. Analytics website NumberFire also had Gillislee first and Burkhead second. Analyst Warren Sharp’s metrics had Gillislee first and Burkhead second in success rate, and Burkhead first and Gillislee second in the fewest “missed yards per attempt,” or how close they came to being successful on the plays that weren’t quite good enough to quality as successful.

The various analytics websites have slight differences in the way they rate players, but they all tend to support the same traits in a running back, namely consistently helping the team pick up first downs. Both Gillislee and Burkhead were excellent at picking up first downs last season, gaining first downs more than 30 percent of the time. Meanwhile, for all the focus on LeGarrette Blount and his 18 touchdowns last year, Blount picked up first downs on just 22.4 percent of his carries. The analytics models say Blount was actually a mediocre running back last year, and that may explain why the Patriots are willing to let Blount walk and turn their attention to Gillislee and Burkhead.

Unlike the Browns, who are open about the fact that they’re building their team with an analytics approach, the Patriots keep quiet about their belief in analytics. We noted last year that Bill Belichick was dismissive about analytics websites, saying he doesn’t look at them. And he probably doesn’t, because he doesn’t need to: He has staffers who stay on top of the latest in analytics, and those staffers do read those websites. One of Belichick’s most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before he worked for Belichick, first in Cleveland and then in New England. Many of the methods that sports statistical analysts use are rooted in the same methods used to analyze economic data. Adams understands both, and that makes him valuable to Belichick.

The interest in analytics goes to the very top of the Patriots’ organization. The Patriots’ official website wrote last year that “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft.”

As the Browns struggled through their first rebuilding season under the new analytics-based regime last season, some observers scoffed that the Moneyball approach wouldn’t work in the NFL. And maybe it won’t work in Cleveland. But it’s working in New England, whether the Patriots say so publicly or not.

88 responses to “With Burkhead and Gillislee signings, Patriots buy into analytics

  1. Belichick has been practicing analytics and the football version of moneyball since he arrived in New England.
    And the trolls have been criticizing it while watching the Patriots win at an unprecedented rate.

  2. Well, one big asterisk regarding analytics is that they are fully dependent on the control. That is, if you change any of the variables, the outcome may be the same.

    For example – change of teammates, coaches, geographic region, division, offensive scheme, player health, number of snaps played, and so on.

    The analytics are fantastic to see how well the player fits for the team they’re on and how he is used. Beyond that, the outcomes are about as equally likely as predicting a fair coin toss. Probably in a similar manner as evaluating players to draft.

  3. It would be par for the course to see the “Brain-trust” at 1 Bills Drive to allow Gillislee to leave the team……..one thing is for sure…The Hoodie knows a steal/deal when he see it….

  4. Can we stop with all the analytics garbage ,they’ve been used for years they’re called stats!.
    Do people think scouts,gm’s and coaches just walked around looked at a guy and said yup I like him let’s sign him??
    It’s symantics used by the douche generation kinda like antique is now retro, handmade is now artisan or filthy hippie is now a cool model…farm to table bruh! ugh shoot me

  5. RandyinRoxbury says:
    Apr 18, 2017 2:57 PM
    Are my Patriots the greatest professional sports franchise ever or what? 🙂

    Uh no 27…that is all

  6. They didn’t buy into analytics. Analytics bought into them.
    They’ve always been into finding guys who do more while making less. It just wasn’t always called “analytics.”

  7. In no way am I questioning Belicheck but 1 question I have is “how many damn RB’s do you need?”

  8. It really doesn’t show that. Firstly, who on earth doesn’t know about Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead? That they had interest in two of the only available RBs, both of whom had successful seasons by any traditional measure, says zero about their interest in analytics. And finally, they wanted Blount back – the guy analytics sites said was mediocre.

  9. I watch every pats game and blount is nothing special. If you watched the games you’d notice every time the patriots played a good team blount had less than 10 touches. Blount was probably the biggest role player for the patriots last season he got a lot of goal line touches. I love blount but his time in New England is over if the bills don’t match the patriots offer for Gillislee. Burkhead however is a wild card I’m not sure if he is insurance for Deion Lewis or if he is actually able to fill the roll as a power back but I trust bill in finding that out.

  10. Analytics has a place in any successful organization, and football is no exception. The reason it hasn’t worked very well in the NFL so far is that the analytics guys are so convinced they’re right that they bulldoze the coaches and other football minds who understand the human element of the game. Analytics works in New England because they crunch the numbers and pass the results off to Bill Belichick for the final decision.

  11. Analytics is used by every industry in the country to some degree.

    Why are you surprised the NFL and teams are using it?

  12. Hmm. I’d suggest that having signed Blount repeatedly shows the Pats don’t just consider analytics with regards to roster construction. Shifty pass-catching backs always grade well in analytics, and with good reason, but dvoa and dyar aren’t really grading players- they’re grading plays, and they’re very particular to context. Makes sense for the Pats to target pass-catching backs- would you rather have Tom Brady making the play, or practically anybody else? The signing of Gilmore, to more money than they’re willing to give Butler, seems contrary to an analytics-driven decision making- dude shows on tape better than he does in the stat sheet. Probably is best practices to have a blended, some-data, some-scouting, approach anyway (obviously whatever approach Belicheck has to roster-building is phenomenal- they’ve already equalled or surpassed the best runs in NFL history, the 49ers from ’81 to ’98, and the Cowboys from ’67 to ’85)

  13. The only analytic BB needs is #12. Starts and ends with that number. Without #12, we’d stop and end our conversation of BB with the number .427, his win percentage prior to Brady.

    Stop pretending any other number matters.

  14. Its called not overpaying so you can build a team from 1-53 and you do not have to send coaches on the field or trip players on the sidelines..right wibby.

  15. People are quick to point out Adams’ degree in economics from Northwestern while failing to ever mention Belichick’s from Wesleyan.

  16. I’m guessing the Bills will match the offer the Pats made…. They’d be foolish not too

  17. Please stop speaking French. Mr. Belichick knows nothing about analytics and despises the bean counters who speak such nonsense.

  18. sbmcintosh36..you have to agree..it was way easier to win back then. Fewer teams. very few trades. You draft a good team. It typically stays that way. I assume your talking about the NYY. To win consistantly in a salary cap trade happy league is alot harder to do. But you cant take away their 27 titles. They did win them.

  19. Gillislee seemed to produce every time he touched the ball, but so did Karlos Williams and that guy has evaporated right out of the league.

    I’d guess the Bills match the offer if only because if the Patriots are interested he must be worth keeping.

  20. The last paragraph of this article is a real stretch and is an unecessary cheap shot at the Browns. The Pats can afford to play moneyball at skill positions because they have had the GOAT QB on team friendly contracts. We have never seen a team build purely from scratch using “Moneyball” like the Browns are currently doing, not even the Pats. They could have a bright future. This whole rant was not meant in the slightest against the Pats btw, just that you cannot remotely compare these two situations just because the word analytics was used

  21. I repeat – BB is at least 2 steps ahead of every other GM in the game, 3 steps ahead of the press and 4 ahead of us guys in the peanut gallery.

    Us Pats fans love it, pats haters hate it, we know that it can’t last forever so we are determined to enjoy every second of it, and the haters make it that much more enjoyable, not to mention amusing.

  22. “The signing of Gilmore, to more money than they’re willing to give Butler, seems contrary to an analytics-driven decision “

    We don’t know what they’re willing to give Butler. They gave Gilmore what they needed to give him to get him into a Patriots uniform. Butler’s not a free agent, so they given him the maximum tender they needed to in order to maintain control over him for the 2017 season. We know they’re willing to do that – how much more they’d be willing to give him if he were a free agent is something that we have no way of knowing…

  23. superpatriotsfan says:
    Apr 18, 2017 3:55 PM
    Patriots really rely on that under the table money.
    Uhmmmm…..I think you are talking about the Donkos….. They are FAMOUS for that…. Got them their earlier SuperBowls**

  24. Wow after five super bowls the Patriots are embracing analytics? Well I guess now if they win 6 more super bowls we might have to take analytics seriously. Actually I think Belichick has always used a form of analytics. He watched tape on players and analyzed the tape.

  25. kissbillsrings says:
    Apr 18, 2017 4:04 PM

    Uhmmmm…..I think you are talking about the Donkos….. They are FAMOUS for that…. Got them their earlier SuperBowls**
    Look up Alex Guerrero

  26. superpatriotsfan says:
    Apr 18, 2017 3:55 PM

    Patriots really rely on that under the table money.
    No, you’re thinking of the Broncos.

  27. Analytics is just the interpretation of statistics and data. We all do it. It’s just that some of us are better or worse than others.

  28. Even Pays fans know that TB is breakable. Strong rbs take the pressure off the pass rush and make it easier for JG should his number be called.

  29. In 2006, after several teams—including the Giants, who caught the Patriots videotaping coaches’ signals in a preseason game that year—complained to the league about New England’s video espionage, NFL senior vice president for football operations Ray Anderson issued a memo reminding teams that “video taping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.”

    Two months later Packers security in Green Bay noticed a man filming with a small handheld camera on the sideline. When the man was confronted, he said the Patriots coaches wanted him to capture field conditions. In the second quarter security saw him apparently filming signals from a tunnel in an end zone corner and stopped him again.

  30. superpatriotsfan says:
    Apr 18, 2017 3:55 PM

    Patriots really rely on that under the table money.
    Let me see if I have the total list of whiner excuses:

    They’re lucky (see David Tyree).
    They cheat (better record after Spygate than before).
    They rely on “under the table money” (Denver & SF actually caught doing this, not NE).
    They have an easy schedule (they play a 1st place schedule every single year, and have the same winning % in the division, out of the division, AFC, NFC, etc.).

  31. I just watched “Trouble with the Curve” for the 2nd time…and the spreadsheet dwerps don’t come out of that documentary very well.

    it is a documentary, isn’t it?

  32. “And finally, they wanted Blount back – the guy analytics sites said was mediocre.”

    I don’t think Blount’s offer is as big as the ones that Burkhead and Gillislee have signed.

    I honestly don’t think he’s returning to the Pats. They gave him a ‘take it or leave it’ offer and he hasn’t taken it. Now they’ve signed two new RBs, both of whom are younger and more efficient than Blount.

    I appreciate what Blount gave the team, but I think he’s done. And he doesn’t appear to be getting interest from anybody else, either.

  33. Sure it is possible the Patriots follow analytics closely. But the signing of Burkhead, and the offer sheet to Gillislee don’t “prove” that Belichick and the Patriots are making moves based on that. Call me crazy, but just maybe the Patriots think those are two really good ball carriers and they can get $15 million in offensive production from two guys making a combined $8 million? Or maybe they both excel in areas that most people (other than Belichick) don’t consider? Or maybe the Patriots are the leaders in using analytics to build a team. We don’t know. You don’t know. And simply determining that they signed the top two RBs according to analytics, means that they follow analytics…

    Based on this theory I have to assume Hightower was #1 for LBs, and Branch was #1 for DTs, and Cooks was #1 for WRs, and Allen was #1 for TEs, and Gilmore was #1 for CBs, etc etc etc

  34. I’m pretty sure the Patriots staff does their own math and doesn’t subscribe to websites. Football statistics aren’t exactly rocket science. Just plug stuff into Excel and you’re good to go.

  35. Bill has practiced this for a while. He puts a value on a player and wont exceed it. It properly helps him allocate money. He looks for guys who cost less and have different skill sets. Instead of paying one guy 8 million, hell find 3 guys to rotate and pay them a total of less than 2 million since he can rotate them in frequently depending on the play call. He also puts an emphasis on ST. He’ll so smart they have to make up rules to allow everyone else to be on his playing field and he still wins.

  36. the patriots have been using analytics since 2000, but nobody has a label for how they do it because theyve mastered it. brian cox, antowain smith, david patten, cmon man. all guys signed to provide a number the pats needed to fill for their team.

  37. You don’t have to be an analytics “guru” to know that Gillislee was a solid RB last year. The analytics comes into play when deciding on how much to pay for players who will fit into your particular system. Bellichick and the Patriots are far and away the best at doing this. Almost every other team in the NFL over-rate their own players and fail at figuring out how a player on another team will fit into their particular system.

  38. Rather than desperately seeking some sort of flimsy validation for sabrmetrics (“analytics”) from a man who considers it to be just so much boyish babble, Michael David, maybe “you could attend the Northeastern Analytics Conference (& like gatherings), get your fill of it there (Bill Belichick, 1.16.16 presser).” Should get you a t-shirt & phone-case, anyway. That’s kinda’ cool.

  39. Love this signing as much as Cooks. Patriots are a loaded wagon. Get the duck boats ready. Could be a historic season.

  40. Once tom brady retires see how that affects the patriots. No amount of analytics will help them then. Once in a generation talent. Arguably best qb of all time. That really helps the old analytics.

  41. Definitely a blunder on Whaley’s part not to use a 2nd Rd tender cuz the Pats would never part with that as opposed to a 5th. It’s not a big deal as some are making out. He’s a backup on the Bills vs. potential starter for the Pats. Bills have the best running offense 2 years running and should be able to acquire someone to backup Shady at a fraction of the price. I like Mike but like Hogan he won’t see that much of the field to justify that kind of money.

  42. Rex Burkhead is going to be very good for the Patriots. I wish the Bengals kept him but understand why he would leave. If the Bengals had any balls, they would have re-signed him and had him starting over Jeremy Hill.

  43. “Once tom brady retires see how that affects the patriots. No amount of analytics will help them then. ”

    You’re entirely correct.

    What will help them is Belichick finding a new QB that is at the very least competent and able to understand the Pats offense. I am quite confident he will do so.

  44. orrnumberfour says:
    Apr 18, 2017 7:52 PM
    Wib22, after your opening words of “In 2006” I stopped reading.



    Was that because everything he is flapping about was legal in 2006?

  45. tonebones says:
    Apr 18, 2017 4:05 PM

    Actually I think Belichick has always used a form of analytics. He watched tape on players and analyzed the tape.


    Ernie Adams is basically a one man analytics department. A bit of a freak for how he can do it all in his head. If you read up on Adam’s past he has used his abilities for a lot more than Football. He is the second richest man in the organization for what he did using stock analysis. But he has a love for applying it to Football so thats alwYs been in his picture. Belichick has had him doing that stuff from early in his career. I think they met in college or something like that.

  46. The Patriots are not some sort of mystery, they just don’t approach player selection like other teams. Where other teams look for overall talent, the Patriots look for guys who can do what they need them to do, and do it for a price tag they can afford. They keep the players they want to keep because most players know they will benefit from winning more than if they chase the highest payday.

    Play selection is also key, if they were investors, they are picking the best return for the level of risk involved. They hate moving the ball backwards, they hate fumbles and interceptions. If they can average 4 to 5 yards a play, they know they will likely be able to move the ball down the field and score. Bringing in Cooks could lead to safety help, which could open Gronk up more, and also open up other receivers.

    At this point, Belichick is just tweaking his system to best suit his needs. In that regard, it’s one reason why so many other teams have a hard time replicating his success, they all are still trying to get the system in place, and most end up fired before they can get the right guys in and the wrong guys out.

  47. Tom brady at qb – perennial playoff team and super bowl favorite. Anyone else at qb for pats – playoff contender. Huge difference pats fans. Also, harrisonhits, i would imagine belichek will retire when brady does so it will be someone else picking tbe qb, not bill. You pats fans don’t realize how good you have it right now. I am a fins fan and look what happened to us whe n shula and marino retired. We were by no means on pats level but were at least competitive and not irrevelant like the last fifteen years. Y all think cause you went 11-5 with matt cassell all will be good when brady retires. Big difference in 11-5 with matt cassell and 11-5 with tom brady.

  48. Please Buffalo just match the offer. Learn a lesson from Hogan and Branch and all the rest. I guess its cool that he will win a Super Bowl there but he was fantastic last year and has been a great spark for Bills.

  49. Comparong Gillislee to Karlos Williams is shortsighted and unfair. Williams had problems at FSU and was considered a risk when drafted. He blew up on the scene his rookie year and then drank his own kool aid (literally) and ate himself out of Buffalo. TD Mike has been a role model and great energy off the bench. We finally develop a guy who is a great backup and spot starter and shouldnt let him leave for a draft pick we will blow anyway. The number of Bills players succeeding elsewhere really chafes. Our only model is to find a qb (ha!) and resign our own like Packers do.

  50. sparxx 3 years of bullying? try 16! If a story broke that patriots were part owners of my bills at this point i wouldnt be stunned the dominance is so severe.

  51. billsbackto81 says:
    Apr 18, 2017 6:25 PM

    Bills have the best running offense 2 years running and should be able to acquire someone to backup Shady at a fraction of the price.
    Interesting to see how these teams have decided to handle the RB position.

    McCoy’s cap hit in 2017 is about 9 mil, which is (if the Gillisleee deal goes through) roughly the amount the Patriots would paying all their RBs combined.

  52. This is simply a smart guy in Bilichik taking full advantage of an idiot GM, Doug Whaley, in Buffalo.

    Happened last year too with Chris Hogan.

  53. Since 2004, I’ve heard Pats fans guaranteeing a SB win




    You’ve been right twice in 12 years. That’s just over 16%. Forgive the rest of us if we wait to see the games played, before we start habding out any trophies (PS there is no award for Greatest of all Time – even if there were, Tom Brady would not be getting it)

  54. Belichick mastered analytics on the knee of his father before analytics was even a word. And when he met Ernie Adams, he met his soul mate, someone he trusts without question.
    To ask Belichick such a base question as “Do you ever use any of the analytics web sites when making decisions?” is like asking Einstein whether he used an abacus when he derived his theory of relativity. So of course everyone got a, No I don’t use snap-face answer. His answer was befitting of the question. And his comment to your post would be one of his blank stares as if looking at the wall thinking to himself, “Do I really have to respond to this broom handle?” And no Smith, he doesn’t consider you to be a peer of his in spite of your protestations to the affirmative.

  55. I don’t know about Gillislee, but Burkhead was a stud when given the opportunity. The Mike Brown/Marvin Lewis braintrust blew it letting him go. Maybe Jeremy Hill will approach his rookie year output (oh wait, that’s what we said two years ago and again last year)..and we’ll be fine?

    The Pats got a solid citizen, great special teams guy, and a good running back and I’m pissed we let him go!

  56. McCoy has a cap hit of approximately $9MM in 2017. If the Bills match the Gillislee signing that’s a cum cap hit in 2017 of $4MM. The two combined would be $13MM in 2017.

    Signings like McCoy rarely pay off and they often constrict a team’s flexibility. The reason the Bills tendered Gillislee at a level that would not require the acquiring team to give up compensation was the hope of saving only about $2MM in cap space in 2017, which they needed to do because of the McCoy signing.

    The Bills lost when they signed McCoy, and when they didn’t tender Gillislee at a higher level, not when they decide to match of not match the Patriots signing.

  57. Just another buzz word for what belichick and ernie have been doing from go.

    He’s not doing analytics, you just call one.aspect of his process analytics.

  58. No, they are not embracing analytics. If they were, they would know that efficiency metrics for a player vary wildly from one year to the next. Don’t believe me? Just look how efficient Burkhead was in 2015.

  59. Did anybody else momentarily read that as “Analyst Warren Sapp’s metrics…” and spit-take all over their new computer?

  60. jwreck says:
    Apr 19, 2017 6:49 PM

    Did anybody else momentarily read that as “Analyst Warren Sapp’s metrics…” and spit-take all over their new computer?


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