Statistics show that the New England Patriots were very formidable last season when they had the right running backs on the field.
They may be even more tough this season, especially now that they are getting help from new additions at tight end and wide receiver.
Two stats that can provide further insight are catch percentage (total catches divided by total targets) as well as total yards from scrimmage divided by total snaps.
Let’s start with catch percentage, which reveals how likely the player is to come down with the ball if the quarterback decides to throw to him.
The catch percentage data suggests that the Patriots were effective in 2020 when they threw passes to running backs such as Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, and the now-departed Rex Burkhead (now seeking to further his career with the Houston Texans).
The Patriots running backs came down with the ball over 70% of the time they were targeted, meaning that quarterback Cam Newton can earn a decent living by capitalizing on that game plan.
Even more interesting is the total yards from scrimmage per snap. Michel turned in 3.11 yards per snap and Harris was just behind at 2.96 yards per snap. By comparison, NFL yardage champ Derrick Henry was at 3.04 yards per snap. All numbers are calculated using data from Pro Football Reference.
That’s just for one season, of course, and neither back was available for the entire year, while Henry has been a workhorse for his entire career. Nevertheless, for his career, Michel is at 2.77 yards per snap, while Henry is at 2.76. So these Patriots backs, though not on the field as often as the coaching staff had hoped, were surprisingly productive when they got their reps in.
Nobody is saying that Michel and Harris are equivalent to Henry for their careers, but when they appear on the field, they are a threat that the defense has to respect. That’s the point.
Patriots wide receivers were not as effective, at least not by this metric. Among them, Jakobi Meyers stood out as a reliable pass catcher in terms of catch percentage and TYFS/snap. Now-retired Julian Edelman turned in lower catch percentage numbers than in previous years although his TYFS/snap were high. Like Michel, White and Harris, his main challenge was finding a way to stay healthy.
N’Keal Harry’s numbers stand out, but not in a good way. With catch percentage of only 57.9% and TYFS/snap of 0.53, it is hard to imagine that his demands to be traded can be met. What sane team would want him? There are peanut vendors in stadiums around the league who could strap it up and outperform these numbers.
It might be argued that yards per snap has a built-in bias because the player does not control the number of touches he gets during the game. However, the counter-argument is that the player has to earn touches or targets. If he’s not getting them, it either means the team doesn’t have confidence in handing him the ball for a rushing attempt or he has a difficult time getting open. It’s not that difficult to deduce. All of those opportunities are impacted by the player’s overall ability. The good news is that Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are here to hopefully change that.
Agholor’s 58.5% catch percentage is nothing to write home about, but his 1.23 yards per snap is well into the star category and suggests he will be highly productive.
What’s not factored in is the effectiveness of blocking, especially from a fullback or a tight end. Hence, it’s recognized that the eyeball test has to supersede TYFS/snap for fullbacks and blocking tight ends like Jakob Johnson, Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene (as well as Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith when they get their work in).
The results of the Patriots’ eyeball test was a decision to invest in Smith and Henry, both of whom are significant upgrades.
Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round draft pick, was supposed to add stability to the running back corps. A downhill runner listed at 6-foot and 227 pounds, he’ll have the opportunity to run behind a stacked offensive line. However, we’ll have to wait for Stevenson to come off hte Non-Football Injury list.
In 2020, the Pats offense produced 5,470 total yards from scrimmage, with 0.90 yards per snap for six position players. By comparison, the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills produced 6,343 yards from scrimmage and 0.972 yards per snap for their six position players. The Bills also ran 1,088 snaps versus 1,011 for the Patriots. That may not sound like much, but when it was all over, the Bills had scored 501 points versus only 326 for the Patriots.
However, for the reasons explained above, there’s very good reason to believe that the Patriots have made major upgrades at tight end and wide receiver and have improved the depth at running back. If the offense is built around the running game, the numbers say that the Pats have very good reason to take a leap and score many more points in 2021.