Earlier this week, I wondered what the Patriots were doing with the running back position. James White, Dion Lewis, and D.J. Foster are better receivers than runners (although they offer differing levels of value as runners), and incumbent bellcow LeGarrette Blount remains unsigned.
The Patriots signed Rex Burkhead away from the Cincinnati Bengals and gave him starting-level money, an indication of his projected involvement within the Patriots offense. But prior to joining the Patriots, Burkhead was regarded as a special teams running back with receiving value and limited value as a runner- he supposedly fell into the same category as White, Lewis, and Foster.
It takes just a quick glance at Burkhead’s performance in the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens #5 ranked run defense (by DVOA) to see that Burkhead could pick up yards as a runner between the tackles- although the Ravens had been eliminated from the postseason in the prior week, so that is some necessary added context.
But most of the numbers support Burkhead’s value as a runner, beyond that game against the Ravens. Burkhead was the second-most efficient runner in 2016 by DVOA and was a positive contributor as a receiver.
Pro Football Focus’ Pat Thorman argues that Burkhead was a strong runner between the tackles and that we can draw comparisons to previous Patriots rushers.
“Burkhead can run inside, as evidenced by his 4.5-yards-per-carry average on between-the-tackles runs last year (5.3 yards between the guards),” Thorman writes. “He is the same size as BenJarvus Green-Ellis and close to Stevan Ridley – a pair of former Patriot ‘big backs.’”
PFF has different stats than the official league gamebooks, but we can do a similar search to what Thorman presents about Burkhead between the tackles.
When Burkhead runs behind the offensive line (from tackle to tackle), he averages 4.70 yards per carry according to Pro Football Reference, ranking 12th overall out of 62 qualifying backs, sandwiched behind Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott and Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell and ahead of Falcons RB Devonta Freeman and Bears RB Jordan Howard.
Lewis ranks 36th with 3.84 yards per carry, while Blount ranks 56th at 3.31 yards per carry. White didn’t qualify, but he averaged 4.39 yards per carry, boosted by his runs on long-distance draw plays.
When looking at just runs up the gut (from guard to guard), Burkhead averages 4.72 yards per carry, ranking 10th out of 65 qualifying backs. Lewis ranks 30th (3.90 YPC) and Blount ranks 54th (3.17 YPC). PFF has better numbers for Burkhead, but the point remains that Burkhead was one of the top rushers between the tackles in 2016.
And not every powerback needs to look like Blount at 6’0, 250 pounds. Most of the previous Patriots runners- Stevan Ridley, Jonas Gray, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, and Corey Dillon- measured between 215-225 pounds. Antowain Smith came in at 232 pounds.
How Burkhead's physical profile matches up with previous Patriots powerbacks. Most from combine, weight listed by NFL. pic.twitter.com/5X3OcJEUiZ— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) March 23, 2017
Burkhead weighed 214 pounds at the NFL Combine and is listed at 210 pounds; if he “bulks up” to 215 pounds again, then he would be well within the standard physical profile of a Patriots powerback, even if he’s on the smaller end of the spectrum.
Burkhead won’t bowl over defenders like Blount and Ridley, but he can still generate yards after contact and is better at making players miss. When you factor in Burkhead’s ability as a receiver to his success as a runner between the tackles in 2016, you get a picture of a very complete running back.