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Cap casualty or contingency plan? Too soon to say Patriots’ Mike Gillislee won’t be the latter

Mike Gillislee registered 5.71 yards per carry and nine total touchdowns for Buffalo in 2016.

A pair of New England Patriots running backs are currently under contract for next season.

Dion Lewis is not one of them. Rex Burkhead isn’t, either. And the same goes for core special-teamer Brandon Bolden.

All three are set to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 14. Perhaps one will be back before then. Or, maybe two will in the days that follow. But that’d likely mean another member of the committee who’s scheduled to be back, won’t.

And that member isn’t James White.

Mike Gillislee is the one whose release would leave New England with zero dead money, a gross savings north of $2.18 million and a net north of $1.6 million, as Miguel Benzan of PatsCap and the Boston Sports Journal noted. He’s the one who’s slated for a 2018 cap number not supported by his 2017 production.

So if the Patriots want to clear space to re-sign Lewis – who amassed 1,110 yards on offense and 10 total touchdowns in 2017 – or Burkhead – who posted career-bests of his own while also playing all four downs – Gillislee figures to be the place to start. But Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio, Dave Ziegler and the rest of the pro personnel department understand it isn’t that cut and dried.

If and when Lewis dives into the open waters, he’s going find offers four- or five-fold to his $1.2 million base salary from 2017. If and when Burkhead does, he’ll be another free-agent fish swimming towards the deep end of the pond after signing for $3.15 million last March.

Somewhere closer to shore sits Gillislee, who will become either a cap casualty or a contingency plan.

It’s too soon to say he won’t be the latter.

The 27-year-old is a season removed from leading the NFL in yards per carry and tying for ninth in rushing touchdowns. Behind LeSean McCoy, he averaged 5.71 per and crossed into the end zone eight times on the ground for the Buffalo Bills. His yardage clip was one that only 11 running backs with over 100 attempts had eclipsed since the 1970 merger. Gillislee’s TD tally, meanwhile, slotted him next to Jay Ajayi, Tevin Coleman and Ryan Mathews in the league’s year-end ranks.

Only there was little semblance of 2016 by the end of 2017. Gillislee, who penned a two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet last April, was unable to outweigh fifth-round draft capital New England gave up to acquire him. He wasn’t the lead rusher he was presumed to be for long, nor was his 5-foot-11, 219-pound frame long for short-yardage and goal-line usage.

Defenses oftentimes loaded the box when No. 35 entered the backfield. They knew Gillislee wasn’t in to catch passes or to pick up blitzers. They knew his presence meant the Patriots’ most versatile elements of surprise were on the sidelines.

Gillislee still ran hard and into the teeth. There were many glimpses in which the ex-Miami Dolphin, Arizona Cardinal and Bill almost broke free. There were just too many almosts.

Gillislee’s average fell by more than two whole yards during his inaugural season with New England. And after collecting four touchdowns through his first two appearances, the once-restricted free agent returned just once more: Week 16.

That 37-16 Patriots victory over the Bills hit the books as Gillislee’s first game in two months. It would hit the books as the ninth and final game of the campaign he’d be active for. The fact Burkhead and White were ruled out with knee and ankle injuries, respectively, played no small part in that. The fact Lewis went above and beyond his 2015 form certainly did as well.

Gillislee continued his work behind closed doors. He continued to garner praise for the way he responded to the reshuffled depth chart.

“A guy like Mike has just been itching to get out there, and really, with the great group of [running backs] we have and the way they’ve been playing, it’s just challenging to get on the field,” quarterback Tom Brady said in his Dec. 24 postgame press conference, via Patriots.com. “There are only so many touches in the game, but he hasn’t said a word. He shows up every day, works his tail off and then got a chance today and really did well and it was great to see it.”

Belichick offered a similar sentiment three days after Gillislee helped the Patriots upend the Bills.

“Mike’s been great,” New England’s head coach told reporters. “Mike works really hard. In practice, sometimes when he’s – well, all the time, really – when he’s running the other teams’ plays because we don’t have any practice-squad backs on our roster, so our backs run the other team’s plays. He gives us a great look on whoever those backs are. And I know every day, every week when he gets his opportunities, he’s ready to go. He’s alert, attentive and makes the most out of them.”

Gillislee wore a black jersey as a Patriots practice player of the week on three occasions in 2017. Though ultimately, the Patriots paid him to be more than a de-facto member of the scout team. A knee injury kept the Florida product inactive in Week 17 and in the AFC divisional round. Healthy scratches followed in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LII. Ten of the final 11 contests went without a snap.

A year after moving the sticks on nearly 40 percent of his handoffs and gaining 10-plus yards on 16 percent of them, just 24 percent of Gillislee’s runs for the Patriots netted first downs. Only four percent gained double-digit yards.

Gillislee took three more carries for New England in 2017 than he did for Buffalo in 2016. Yet 5.71 turned into 3.68 somewhere along the way. Eight rushing touchdowns turned into four. Thirty-nine first downs turned into 25. Sixteen scampers of at least 10 yards turned into a quarter of that.

But Gillislee didn’t turn into a different back the day Buffalo declined to match New England’s offer.

Depending on the futures of Lewis and Burkhead, the Patriots might be left counting on him to be the same one.

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