Monday, May 14, 2018

New England Patriots RBs coach: Rex Burkhead is 'something special'

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) breaks free from Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson (21) in Super Bowl LII, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 in Minneapolis. The Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33 to win their first Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Doug Benc)(Doug Benc)

By Kevin Duffy
May 14, 2018

FOXBOROUGH -- Rex Burkhead's first season with the Patriots was interrupted twice by injury, but the team must have liked what it saw.

Burkhead was brought back on a three-year deal this offseason. And, based off comments from Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, Burkhead looks like a strong candidate to grab the starting running back job this summer.

"This time last year, he started showing us what he could do," Fears said on Friday. "Once you get a chance to see it, you sort of build on it. Rex is something special. I like him."

Burkhead carved out a unique role in the 2017 Patriots offense; he emerged as the team's top goal line back, but he also was a mismatch in the passing game, taking advantage of linebackers in coverage.

He took a screen pass 46 yards in Super Bowl LII, and he easily beat Broncos safety Darian Stewart for a 14-yard touchdown on a slant route during a Week 10 matchup in Denver. Despite missing seven games (playoffs included) due to an injury to his ribs and a sprained knee, Burkhead showed enough to warrant another contract in New England.

"He's a great kid," Fears said. "He has that passion for the game that I sort of have too. I sort of love that. It makes it easy. I don't have to worry about him getting work done off the field...He's a real professional player and loves what he's doing."

With Dion Lewis in Tennessee, the starting job is up for grabs. Burkhead's ability as a runner and receiver will give him a solid shot to get on the field early. First-round pick Sony Michel also will challenge for the No. 1 role.

James White's role in the passing game is entrenched. And then there's the battle between Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill. The Pats figure to keep one of the two as a between-the-tackles threat.

Fears, who has coached running backs in New England for nearly two decades, is intrigued by Hill.

Formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, Hill is looking to revitalize his career. He rushed for 1,124 yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie in 2014, but has seen his numbers steadily decline in the three years since.

"I was really high on him coming out of college, from LSU," Fears said. "I thought the world of him. I thought it was a good grab by Cincinnati. Hey, I'm sort of looking forward to this challenge and seeing what he can do for us."

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