When it comes to the 2020 NFL season, there are a lot of unknowns. We don't yet know when teams will collectively gather at their facilities, if and when training camps will actually happen, what the preseason will look like, whether or not fans will be in stadiums for regular season games, or, if we're being totally honest, how many regular season games there will even be, assuming the season does get underway at some point.
One thing we do know for sure, though, is that whenever the 2020 season does begin, the New England Patriots will look a lot different than they have in quite some time. We know that for the first time in nearly two decades, the Pats won't have Tom Brady under center, and we know that it's likely Jarrett Stidham will replace him there. There has been a bunch of speculation about how the shift from Brady to Stidham will affect New England's offense, but not much of it has focused on what it will mean for the team's backfield situation.
With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots almost always deployed their backs in a committee. Pro-Football-Reference.com has snap-count data going back to 2012, and only twice in that span did any Patriots running back see the field for more than 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps. There were more seasons during that same span where the Pats used at least three different backs on at least 20 percent of their snaps.
One of those seasons was in 2019, when New England gave James White 42.7 percent of the snaps while also handing 36.6 percent to Sony Michel and 23.0 percent to Rex Burkhead. The division of labor was fairly clear: White was the pass-catching back, and the Patriots passed 84 percent of the time when he was on the field; Michel was the power back, and New England ran the ball 66 percent of the time when he was in the game; and Burkhead was the pass-catching back whose presence was slightly less of a tell than that of White, as the Pats passed 68 percent of the time with Burkhead on the field.
Having those designated roles made sense with Brady under center, as he had shown a consistent ability to utilize pass-catching backs like White (and Shane Vereen and Kevin Faulk before him) to take advantage of linebackers and safeties in coverage, identifying the mismatch before the snap and getting the ball out quickly in order to afford him time and space to run after the catch. Whether Stidham can do the same is an open question. In his two years as the starter at Auburn, his running backs combined for only 60 catches -- just 12.3 percent of the team's total. By contrast, White, Burkhead, and Michel combined for 29.8 percent of New England's catches last year.
If Stidham is not as willing or able to throw to backs as often as Brady was, that dramatically reduces the utility and effectiveness of two of New England's three top backs, and of White, in particular. White has never carried the ball more than 123 times in a season, and his career average of just 4.1 yards per carry is below average for the modern NFL. Burkhead's career high is 74 carries, and he, too, carries a career average of just 4.1 yards per tote. Michel is the only one of the trio with extensive ball-carrying experience, and he was dramatically less effective last season (3.7 yards per carry) than he was as a rookie in 2018 (4.5 per carry).
Michel is also reportedly recovering from offseason foot surgery, according to a report from ESPN.com, and may even have to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Michel has also been hobbled by several knee injuries since he entered the league, and they seemed to have an effect on his performance last year. If Stidham can't properly utilize White and/or Burkhead and Michel is not the same player, the Patriots may have to turn a significantly larger role than expected to 2018 third-round pick Damien Harris, who played all of five offensive snaps for them last season despite Michel's repeated struggles. That does not seem like an advantageous situation for them to be in.
In the background of these various issues is the drop-off the Patriots experienced last season in their run-blocking, as they fell out of the top-10 in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades for the first time in five years and saw 21 percent of their rush attempts stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders. Getting center David Andrews back on the field should help, and Isaiah Wynn staying healthy for the first time would be a boost as well, but the retirement of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia could conceivably offset those gains. That's what happened the last time Scarnecchia retired, after all.
This would all be less of a concern if we could expect the Patriots to have a top-flight passing game that can threaten defenses down the field and provide some more space for the backs, but considering the state of the passing game last season, the probable downgrade at quarterback, and the lack of any real deep threat among the wide receivers, that seems fairly unlikely. The Patriots figure to try to execute a ball-control style of offense while counting on their defense to keep them in games, but that becomes considerably more difficult once you take a deeper look at their backfield situation.