Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Patriots Free Agency: Why Re-Signing Rex Burkhead Is In New England’s Best Interest

By Zack Cox
February 20, 2018

Rex Burkhead proved to be a dangerous and versatile offensive weapon in his first season with the New England Patriots. When he could stay healthy, that is.

The 27-year-old running back was a touchdown machine for the Patriots late in the season and provided a jolt of offensive production in Super Bowl LII, but he also missed seven games (including playoffs) due to injury and dealt with additional ailments during the preseason.

First, it was a rib injury suffered in Week 2 — shortly after Burkhead hauled in a 19-yard pass from Tom Brady for his first touchdown in a Patriots uniform — that sidelined him for four games. Then, a knee sprain in Week 15 that kept him out until the AFC Championship Game.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they had tremendous depth at running back this season, allowing them to absorb Burkhead’s injuries plus another one to James White late in the year without skipping a beat. Burkhead and White both took a backseat to Dion Lewis (career-high 896 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns), but all three made important contributions as New England fell one win short of a second consecutive championship.

Burkhead, who signed a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the Patriots last spring, is set to venture back into free agency next month. (So, too, is Lewis, whom we profiled earlier in the week.) Let’s take a look at Burkhead’s 2017 season and his chances of returning to the Patriots in 2018.

2017 stats: 64 carries, 264 yards, five touchdowns; 30 catches (36 targets), 254 yards, three touchdowns

Highlight of the season: His performance in a Week 13, when he rushed 12 times for a season-high 78 yards and two touchdowns while also catching three passes for 25 yards in a win over the Buffalo Bills.

Six of Burkhead’s eight touchdowns came during a four-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 15.

Burkhead also scored a touchdown and blocked a punt in a Week 10 win over the Denver Broncos and made the most of his limited action in Super Bowl LII, amassing 64 yards from scrimmage on just four touches in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Chances of coming back: Pretty good, especially if Lewis signs elsewhere, which appears likely at this point. With his ability to contribute as a runner, pass-catcher and special teamer, Burkhead is a perfect Patriots player, and the injuries he dealt with this season should allow them to re-sign him to a relatively affordable deal.

Running back depth: White, Mike Gillislee

Contingency plan: The Patriots were overstocked at running back this season, so much so that Gillislee — who underperformed in the early going but wasn’t horrible — hardly saw the field over the final 11 games. If Lewis and Burkhead both leave, though, the Patriots will need to bolster the position this offseason.

Even if Burkhead does re-sign, given his injury history, it could be worth using a mid-round draft pick on a running back prospect. New England rarely drafts running backs but has been successful when doing so, selecting White (fourth round) in 2014 and Stevan Ridley (second round) and Shane Vereen (third round) in 2011.

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