Run game enters (another) new era with arrival of Gillislee, Burkhead

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(Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH — In truth, Ivan Fears is more like a college coach than a professional one.

Fears has led the Patriots’ running backs since 2002 (he coached the wide receivers from 1999 to 2001), but has had to endure almost constant turnover in the backfield, as the Patriots have rarely had the same feature back for more than two-straight seasons.

It’s part of life in New England — backs are viewed as mostly plug-and-play assets who are a largely complementary part of the Patriots offense. Asked about the approach on Wednesday, Fears shrugged. One of the only guys in the building who predates the arrival of Bill Belichick, Fears has grown used to the team-building process.

“That’s just part of building a team: we just sort of plug guys in,” he said. “Nobody is safe, anywhere. For us, we look at what’s available and we try and put the best team we can together.

“I have no problem with that. We’re going to do whatever it takes to find a way to win. That’s what it’s going to be. You want to be able to stay here, you better be able to produce and help us win. That’s what it comes down to.”

The production the Patriots have gotten at the position is a tribute to the work of Fears, who has been the only constant the last dozen-plus years. He’s coached four different 1,000-yard rushers in New England: Corey Dillon (franchise record of 1,625) in 2004, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,008) in 2010, Stevan Ridley (1,263) in 2012 and LeGarrette Blount (1,161) in 2016. But Belichick has never had a back rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

That streak will extend this season, as Blount departed for Philadelphia. That means the Patriots and Fears will now turn their eyes to former Buffalo back Mike Gillislee. The 5-foot-11, 208-pounder, who had 101 carries for 577 yards and eight touchdowns for the Bills last season, will be tasked with being the primary between-the-tackles back for New England in 2017.

Fears sounded optimistic when asked about Gillislee and fellow newcomer Rex Burkhead, who was acquired this past offseason via Cincinnati after finishing the 2016 season with 74 carries for 344 yards and two rushing touchdowns and 17 catches for 145 yards.

“They both have played and been productive,” Fears said. “They’ve both had sort of backup roles, but they’ve been very productive when they’ve been on the field. That’s the key to it. They’re guys who have shown they have what it takes, and we’re going to give them a little bit more of an opportunity to show that, and if they can, they’ll be the guys out there.

“But like anything, they have to earn it. And if they have to earn it starting now. Now, (there will) be some stuff happening. The competition will get upgraded here and we’ll go at it. They have a chance to perform for us. This is when you really find out what they’re all about.”

Of course, there are a couple of familiar faces for Fears to lean on; namely Dion Lewis and James White, the two third-down options that were so absolutely filthy down the stretch and into the postseason. Fears sounded an optimistic note on Lewis, who didn’t return from a 2015 knee injury until midway through last season.

“Anybody coming off major injury — and we have to remember, [Lewis] had a major injury — and he had a little corrective surgery later before the season started — that’s not easy,” Fears said of Lewis, who still has never lost a game in a New England uniform. “I thought he did a great job getting back. He really did. I was really happy to see I’m back out there and he helped us tremendously.

“I expect that he’s feeling a hell of a lot better than when he showed up late in the season last year.”

Like any good (college) coach, Fears has mixed reactions when he sees his charges move on. Although he’s been around long enough to grasp the reality of the situation, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel some sadness when one of his guys leaves town.

“We all become … probably a little bit too close,” Fears said. “You get to know guys. You get to being around them for a long time. But they’re moving on.

“I look at it this way — they’re getting paid an awful lot of money and they’re going to jump on that. You’re going to lose guys. They’re good guys. All the guys we’ve had are good guys. I’m also very happy for them. But yeah, I miss them. But I also look forward to the next guy that is stepping in to take over. And that’s where we are.”