Fantasy owners have long heralded the running back success of the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Kansas City’s success predates Andy Reid, but has found more consistency behind the veteran play caller. New England, on the other hand, lacks consistency, though they make up for it with remarkably high ceilings for their backs. Rookie Kareem Hunt and offseason signing Mike Gillislee both found their first opportunity in new uniforms and took full advantage of their opportunities in the season opener.
KC’s rookie emerged as a true feature back against the Patriots. He proved to be an every down option capable of playing in both the running and passing game. Hunt was the bell cow (sort of) on Thursday, appearing on 36 of the Chiefs’ 65 plays (plus an additional 4 penalties). The remaining 29 snaps saw a mix of Tyreek Hill, De’Anthony Thomas and Charcandrick West all in the backfield. There is no concern that Hill or Thomas will steal away Hunt’s job, and the lost snaps should result in more opportunity when he is actually on the field.
|17||Run||17 carries, 148 yards, 1 TD|
|2||Team Run||Showed the Speed Option|
|17||Pass||5 receptions, 98 yards, 2 TD|
|4||Penalty||2 Holding, 1 False Start, 1 Delay|
|40||Total||246 yards, 3 TDs|
Hunt’s historic game put him on everyone’s map if he wasn’t already. Finishing with 17 carries for 148 yards and 5 receptions for 98 yards, his three touchdowns put him over the top with a fantasy performance that will resonate for the rest of the year. Kansas City clearly trusts the rookie to carry the ball even after fumbling it away on his first opportunity. More important is that he should have a role in the passing game. With the majority of his plays being passing options, they ran him through a number of routes that should provide him with ample opportunity against linebackers.
While Hunt proved to be a three-down option, West regularly took his role as the third-down back and in passing situations. Hunt proved he can deliver as a receiver, but there were a number of missed blocks in the run game that likely transitioned to passing situations in practice. West affirmed he can run when called upon (a 21-yard TD in the fourth quarter) and presently looks to be a more suitable name if the team falls behind. Part of what allowed Hunt to play in the passing game is that Ware was expected to be the receiving back. It will not take long for defenses to make the necessary adjustments.
Alex Smith emerged as a much more aggressive arm against New England. Whether that is the presence of Patrick Mahomes II or simply it being the first game of the season, a more explosive passing game will open up regular opportunity in the run game. The Chiefs also utilized a three-back set with Hill, Hunt, and Thomas all in the backfield which resulted in a shovel pass nearly every time to Travis Kelce. Eventually the team will move away from that small pass, but keeping defenses honest early in the year may lead to big play opportunities for the runners.
One of the more hyped running backs for this year delivered in a big way. Despite averaging only 3.0 yards per carry, Gillislee delivered on high expectations as New England’s short-yardage option. The new back appeared on 24 snaps (3 penalties) as the second most utilized back in the stable. He boasts strong usage, but appeared relatively one-dimensional as the team tries to feel out this year’s offense.
|15||Run||15 carries, 45 yards, 3 TD|
|2||Team Run||Chris Hogan involved early|
|3||Penalty||2 offensive, 1 defensive|
|24||Total||45 yards, 3 TDs|
Gillislee carried a strong goal line reputation in Buffalo and he cemented himself in that role on Thursday. He carried the ball 15 times with seven of those coming inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. On those seven attempts, he matched Hunt with three touchdowns of his own. New England sees Gillislee as their best true running back and showed it with him carrying the ball on nearly three-quarters of his snaps.
New England’s depth will always be a concern for Patriot owners. Despite early success on the ground, James White tallied 19 extra snaps to Gillislee’s 24. Adding 16 reps between Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis and there is clear trouble. Gillislee’s claim as the best running back is a double-edged sword. He is clearly the worst receiver of the bunch and is likely to see his efficiency drop if his usage remains that predictable. James White delivered as the most reliable third-down back and was even the red zone option late in the game. White’s 14 Super Bowl receptions will not easily be forgotten as a more consistent fit for New England’s passing game.
It would not be a lie to say the passing game is favored in today’s offenses. However, the Patriots’ reliance on the passing game may be a bit overstated given what success they usually find. That said, it is fairly surprising to see the balance from last night’s game (35 rushes/36 passes). Before turning more to the pass in the second half, New England was not necessarily running the ball that effectively barring a few key rushes from Gillislee. There was an expected feeling out process following the loss of Julian Edelman, so the field should open up as the passing attack becomes more regular.