Thursday, June 08, 2017

Rex Burkhead's pass-catching ability stands out at New England Patriots minicamp

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels instructs running back Rex Burkhead (34) during an NFL football team practice Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)(Elise Amendola)

June 7, 2017

FOXBOROUGH -- Attempting to predict the distribution of touches in the Patriots backfield is akin to filling out your March Madness bracket.

You think you have a good grasp on everything...

...and it turns out you know embarrassingly little.

So keep that in mind when reading about this deep and talented group of Patriots backs in 2017.

And with that caveat, I'll note this: I believe the Patriots really like Rex Burkhead, who signed a one-year, $3.15 million deal after an impressive finish to the 2016 season.

In Cincinnati, Burkhead had long been relegated to third string behind Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. Late in the year, as the Bengals fell out of playoff contention, Bernard tore his ACL and Hill suffered a knee injury. Burkhead seized the opportunity, rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale. He also averaged 58.5 yards from scrimmage in the four games preceding his breakout Week 17.

Burkhead's film showcases his between-the-tackles ability. He runs harder than his 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame would indicate.

A small snapshot of Burkhead at Patriots minicamp has shed light on another important skill: His pass-catching ability.

Yes, the Patriots are merely wearing shorts and T-Shirts at minicamp. But Burkhead's ability as a receiver has stuck out. He runs routes fluidly. He attacks the ball with his hands. During Wednesday's practice, he made a contested catch on a 10-yard out route along the sidelines on the first play of 11-on-11s.

It's reasonable to envision the Patriots moving Burkhead around, allowing him to run routes from in the slot and out wide as well as from the backfield.

As effective as James White has been as a receiver, he does the bulk of his damage on screen passes. Burkhead could give the Patriots a different look. Remember, before Dion Lewis' injury in 2015, the Pats were using Lewis on slants and even on go routes from out wide.

"I like everything I saw (from Burkhead)," Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears said in late May. "He runs well, looks like he has good vision, can be a tough guy, caught the ball very easily on film. There were a lot of things he did very well that sort of attracted you to him. Plus he plays special teams. He's a guy that's going to fit great in our kind of system, where you have to do a little of everything."

Burkhead won't have an easy path to touches. The Patriots and Tom Brady love White. Lewis should be 100 percent healthy heading into training camp, and the Pats know what he can do when he is healthy. Mike Gillislee has averaged 5.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons.

So we'll have to see how this competition shakes out in August and beyond. But here in early June, Burkhead looks like he could be an exciting weapon in Josh McDaniels' offense.

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