Friday, December 01, 2017

Rex Burkhead's emergence with Patriots was predictable: 'Don't let this guy get in the hands of New England'

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead, right, catches a touchdown pass at the goal line in front of Miami Dolphins linebacker Chase Allen (59) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

By Kevin Duffy
December 1, 2017

FOXBOROUGH -- Marquis Flowers had spent three seasons with Rex Burkhead in Cincinnati, running with him on all special teams units, chasing after him when the Bengals second-string offense earned practice reps.

Few men in the NFL -- players, coaches, or front office staffers -- were in a better position to offer an evaluation of Burkhead heading into free agency this past spring.

And here was Flowers' evaluation.

"Don't let this guy get in the hands of a team like New England," Flowers remembers thinking. "I was back there (in Cincinnati) saying it. This dude get into the hands of New England, that's the only team that I thought -- that I knew -- it was going to be trouble."

"So when he went there, the league didn't know yet, but we knew," Flowers said. "I think everyone in Cincinnati knew what was going to happen this year."


Burkhead isn't a Pro Bowler, and he isn't even technically a starter. But he is one of the more unique players to swing by Foxborough in quite some time.

A sampling of what Burkhead has done since returning from a ribs injury that kept him sidelined from Weeks 3-6...

He burst out of a three-point stance on a punt versus Denver, maintained his balance as rookie safety Jamal Carter jabbed the side of his helmet, accelerated past personal protector Justin Simmons, and practically blocked Riley Dixon's punt with his chest.

In the same game, while isolated out wide against Denver safety Darian Stewart, Burkhead made an immediate cut to gain inside leverage, pushed his route up upfield, then broke into a slant for an easy 14-yard touchdown from Tom Brady.

He shook free of Chargers safety Adrian Phillips on a deliberate -- but effective -- spin move, picking up 14 yards on one of his seven receptions in Week 8. He plunged forward for a short-yardage touchdown against the Dolphins, and on another goal line opportunity motioned out of the backfield and made quick work of heavy-footed Miami linebacker Chase Allen for a 1-yard touchdown catch.

Burkhead has caught 21 of 26 targets, matched his touchdown total (4) from his first four seasons in the NFL, blocked for Dion Lewis on the kick return unit, and carved out roles in short-yardage and third-down situations.

"You know how they say jack of all trades, master of none?" said former NFL running back Roy Helu, who played alongside Burkhead at Nebraska. "Honestly, he's mastered certain skills and he can do it all."

There are two obvious question: How did Burkhead accumulate all these unrelated skills? And why now?

Why does he come to the Patriots and excel when he hardly saw the field for the Bengals?

Burkhead doesn't have any earth-shattering answers for the first question. Like most NFL players, he was a star player growing up. He'd only see action on the special teams units if asked to return a punt or kickoff. Not until he arrived in Cincinnati did he put his hand in the dirt and charge a punt, or stand on the front line of the kickoff return team. Burkhead, a sixth-round pick in 2013, said the Bengals coaches were upfront with him: "To find a position on this team," they told him, "you're going to find a role in the special teams phase."

"Him on special teams, it was a problem," said Flowers, who was reunited with Burkhead in a late August trade to the Pats. "Everyone has to work on stuff, but he was one of those guys who could just run down guys and tackle, definitely a good tackler."

Burkhead's natural receiving ability was already developed by the time the Bengals drafted him 190th overall in 2013. Those skills, he said, were refined in his hometown of Plano, Texas, one of America's most famous football cities. While he also played basketball and baseball growing up, Burkhead frequently competed in 7-on-7s during the football offseason.

"You can't run the ball then," Burkhead said, "so it was mostly pass-catching."

Burkhead's father, Rick, was his coach in pee-wee football. Decades earlier, Rick Burkhead had been a fullback at Eastern Kentucky and, briefly, he competed for jobs in training camp with the 1992 Dolphins and 1993 Eagles. He stressed the importance of becoming an all-purpose back. Burkhead's older brother, Ryan, was a standout defensive end at Plano Senior high school. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Ryan went on to play college ball at Harvard.

"He got the size, height, the brains, he still has his hair, it's just like 'man...'" joked Rex, 5-foot-10 and balding.

Ryan's presence helped Burkhead develop his physicality, a rare trait among pass-catching running backs and one of the unique aspects of his game. After all, how many third-down specialists also play the role of goal line back?

Burkhead's footwork, his uncommon polish in the passing game, is the product of two factors, according to Helu.

He describes it like this: Once, when the team was arriving for 6 a.m. conditioning, Nebraska tight end Niles Paul declared to Helu, "Dude, you need to start taking football seriously!"

"Look at this guy!," Paul said, referring to Burkhead.

Unbeknownst to Helu, Burkhead had shown up at 5 a.m. for an hour of jump rope before official conditioning commenced.

This was Burkhead's sophomore year. As a freshman, he caught Helu's eye immediately when the Huskers broke into receiver drills.

"You either have it or you don't," Helu said, "and when you don't have it you do your best to try to become moderate at tracking a ball and catch it at different angles. But with Rex, he had it."

Watching Burkhead run routes that first day of spring practice, Helu thought, "Who is this white kid who just got on the team?"

"He was really skilled and really agile at the time," Helu recalled, "and what you see (now) is what you've always had."


So here's the more complicated question: What happened in Cincinnati?

Prior to Weeks 16 and 17 a season ago, Burkhead had never carried the ball more than nine times in a NFL game. Prior to Week 13, he had never carried more than five times. He was decidedly a non-factor for the Bengals offense, destined to leave in free agency when his rookie deal expired.

"Listen, this is the NFL and sometimes it happens that way," explained Flowers. "There's no reason why he shouldn't have been playing."

Helu, who spent five seasons in the league with the Redskins and Raiders, often wondered about Burkhead's status in Cincinnati. While with Oakland in 2015, he asked a teammate who previously had played for the Bengals, "What's going on with Rex?"

"The guy straight outright told me, and I'm paraphrasing here, 'You know how coaches are, they have their favorites,'" Helu recalled.

Not until Gio Bernard tore his ACL and Jeremy Hill suffered a late-season knee injury did Burkhead see an extended opportunity. In the final two games of the season, he racked up 45 touches for 211 yards, flashing power and balance between the tackles and impressive precision as a receiver.

"There was enough for us to go on," Belichick said, "enough to evaluate."

In the spring, after Burkhead had inked a one-year deal with the Pats, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis predicted a bright future for the running back. Perhaps as a preemptive attempt to assuage concerns that the Bengals had erred in letting him go, Lewis pointed toward Burkhead's injury history.

"Even in preseason opportunities and so forth where he'd go into the games and it would be Rex's ballgame to carry the ball in the first and second quarter and he wasn't able to suit up," Lewis told The Globe. "That's one of the things he's battled over the years is being 100 percent completely healthy."

He's not wrong. Burkhead logged only 15 preseason carries from 2014-16. His strong finish to the 2016 season boosted his stock in free agency, and the Bengals seemed intent on tapping into a loaded running backs class in the draft (they drafted Joe Mixon in the second round). So they let Burkhead walk. While Burkhead's success in New England was almost too predictable, it's not the result of a truly egregious personnel decision by Cincinnati.

What qualifies as egregious: The Browns kept three lumbering running backs -- Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell, and Terrance West -- over Dion Lewis in 2014 (Everything he's doing now, he was doing in Cleveland," West said in 2015. "Same exact stuff.") A year ago, the Lions traded Kyle Van Noy, who was starting at the time, and a seventh-round pick to New England for a sixth-round pick. It made little sense at the time, and makes even less today.

The Burkhead acquisition is not in the same category, but it still is widely viewed as a steal for New England.

"It happens all the time," Helu said. "Remember, there are a lot of guys that are good enough that are on the bench right now."

Somehow, the Patriots keep finding them.

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