Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rex Burkhead signing: What type of RB are New England Patriots getting?

Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead warms up before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

By Kevin Duffy

March 14, 2017
The New England Patriots have dipped into the free agent running back market, bypassing high-profile names like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Latavius Murray, Eddie Lacy, and, for now, LeGarrette Blount to sign ex-Cincinnati back Rex Burkhead.

In his four years with the Bengals, Burkhead excelled on several special teams' units. He also exhibited the skills of a productive NFL running back, albeit in a small sample size.

Here is what you should know about Burkhead:

**Injuries late in the year to Bengals running backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill opened the door for Burkhead. In Week 17 against Baltimore, which boasted the NFL's fifth-best run defense, Burkhead churned out 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. He totaled 67 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches the previous week versus the Texans.

**So what type of back is Burkhead?

He is listed at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds. He hits the hole hard and runs with a combination of vision and decisiveness. While Burkhead does not bowl over defenders a la Eddie Lacy or LeGarrette Blount, he runs with a forward lean and appears to finish each carry.

The two traits that stood out from watching him in extended action: His vision and acceleration through the hole.

"He proved today, man, he can run the football. I'd take him as a No. 1 any day of the week," Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth said after Burkhead's breakout 119-yard performance versus the Ravens, via "I don't think there's too many teams where he wouldn't fit. He runs the ball well. He's got great agility. He's got eyes, he's got it all. The whole team has wanted him to get his opportunity and see what he does. Especially the defensive players because they know what Rex used to do to them. He's a talented kid."

He did not exhibit Dion Lewis-like wiggle or change-of-direction, but his style was unquestionably effective when given carries.

Burkhead flashed some agility as a receiver in the open field. In Week 13 versus the Eagles, he lined up out wide on a 3rd-and-4 and sidestepped two Philly defenders --safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Mychal Kendricks -- en route to a 17-yard gain (he did fumble at the end of the play, though).

Other than this play, Burkhead's pass-catching exploits out of the backfield were of the screen and checkdown variety. Traditional stuff.

**How will Burkhead fit with the current Patriots backfield?

Tough to say at this point.

He is not exactly like Dion Lewis, who has superior lateral quickness and the ability to make defenders miss in tight spaces. James White, meanwhile, is an accomplished receiver with the ability to dodge defenders in the open field.

Burkhead might be an adept receiver, too. He seems to have the athleticism to become an effective pass-catcher in the Patriots' system. He just needs to learn how to run routes from different spots on the field.

Asked last year about then-Patriots tailback Donald Brown lining up out wide, New England running backs coach Ivan Fears said, "Hey, we don't know. We haven't seen it. That doesn't mean he can't do it. I'll put it to you this way: I didn't think James White could do it out there like that, but I'm telling you what, once you get out there, those guys, they've got some sh-- about them."

The same could be said about Burkhead entering this 2017 season.

**Based on his small sample size as the Bengals' starter, Burkhead looks like he is equipped to handle an expanded role. As someone who waited four years for his chance in Cincinnati, it would make little sense for him to sign in New England if the Patriots only planned on using him for special teams (like Brandon Bolden). Burkhead should have some type of role in the backfield.

The exact nature of that role depends on the Patriots' other acquisitions.

Will the team bring back LeGarrette Blount? Will the Pats draft a bigger back in the middle rounds?

We'll have a better feel for the Pats backfield by the end of April.

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