After two days without any personnel moves, the New England Patriots have re-emerged from the shadows yesterday. While signing free agent running back Rex Burkhead was the team’s lone transaction of day six of free agency, it was not the only development.
Let’s quickly recap them.
Rex Burkhead brings versatility to New England...
The Patriots’ signing of Burkhead follows the team’s approach to acquiring outside players: A talented player, who has not had a clear-cut role with his last team and has thus become expendable. The 26-year old was the third option on the Cincinnati Bengals’ running back depth chart and, being mostly a special teamer, saw only minimal offensive playing time his first three years in the NFL.
2016 was different though. With injuries to Cincinnati’s top two backs, Burkhead became a fixture on offense and flashed his talents as a runner and a receiver. Overall, he attempted 74 rushes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, while also catching 17 passes for 145 yards – all while being tied for ninth in the NFL in special teams tackles (12). The versatility and production Burkhead brings certainly was appealing to the Patriots.
...and will make at least one of 2016’s running backs expendable
Signing the ex-Bengal also suggests that New England’s 2017 running back depth chart will look different from the 2016 version. While Dion Lewis, James White and James Develin are fixtures to return, free agents LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden remain unsigned. And with Burkhead on board, the Patriots now have a player to replace at least one of them.
Given his special teams experience, it seems likely that he takes over and expands Bolden’s old role as a rotational running back and core special teamer. He could, however, also become an option on early downs which in turn makes him a potential replacement option for Blount as well. Burkhead has proven to be comfortable and productive in this role last year as the vast majority of his carries – 66 of 74 – came on either first or second down.
For Malcolm Butler it is New Orleans or New England
The Malcolm Butler saga is ongoing and it appears as if he will either be with the Patriots in 2017 or with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, with whom New England has made a blockbuster trade earlier this offseason, have expressed their interest in the Pro Bowl cornerback. Butler will visit New Orleans tomorrow and both his camp and the organization are already negotiating a potential contract.
The Patriots, in the meantime, appear to have taken a backseat. Fact is, though, that they still have control over Butler, who currently is a restricted free agent: Before he signs the first round tender New England placed on him, he cannot be traded. Even if the parameters of a Butler-Saints deal are in place, the Patriots have a say in how and if the 27-year old leaves.
“Hightower watch” is down to three teams – and could be over soon
The second big name with whom the Patriots have to deal with this free agency period is Dont’a Hightower. The linebacker is currently making the rounds in order to maximize his contract value and it seems as if two of the teams he visited are legitimately interested in signing him: The New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers both join the Patriots as the frontrunners in the Hightower sweepstakes.
The Jets reportedly have the most money on the table but Hightower "doesn’t seem inclined to take it", while the Steelers told the 27-year old that a deal would be off the table in case he leaves Pittsburgh. Whatever he decides to do, it appears as if "Hightower watch" is down to those three teams. Given Pittsburgh’s ultimatum it could be over soon – one way or the other.