With opening day still three months away and the mandatory portion of the initial wave of offseason workouts over, we have entered the more quiet parts of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and OTAs, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we’ll continue the series with one of the Patriots’ offseason acquisitions.
Name: Rex Burkhead
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 34w
Opening day age: 27
Size: 5’10, 210 lbs.
2016 review: The final year of Rex Burkhead’s rookie contract with the Cincinnati Bengals turned out to be the most productive of his four-year NFL career. Entering the season as the team’s number three option at running back, he saw a spike in offensive playing time after Giovani Bernard tore his ACL in week 11: Burkhead’s snap number went from 1.7 to 36.8 per game while his touches increased from an average of 0.8 to 14.3 per contest.
Over the course of the entire season, the 2013 sixth round draft pick out of Nebraska appeared in all 16 of the Bengals’ games and played 238 of a possible 1,087 offensive snaps (21.9%). He also saw regular playing time on special teams and finished the year with a total of 209 kicking game snaps (of 442; 47.3%).
Offensively, Burkhead was primarily used as a versatile backfield weapon on early downs. He carried the football 74 times for 344 yards and two touchdowns over the course of the season; his 4.6 yards per carry leading all of Cincinnati’s running backs by a rather significant margin. He also added 145 yards on 17 pass receptions.
Burkhead also was a regular on special teams, particularly before seeing an increase in offensive playing time. He was used in a variety of roles in all four phases of the game: Burkhead served as one of the two deep returnmen on opposing kickoffs – totaling six returns for 114 yards – and as a gunner on his team’s own. He also saw playing time as a rusher and personal protector on punts.
2017 preview: On March 14, the Patriots signed the unrestricted free agent to a one-year, $3.15 million contract; a deal that guarantees Rex Burkhead a roster spot come September. And while the soon-to-be 27-year old may not have been the flashiest of offseason acquisitions, he might very well play a significant role on the team – both offensively and on special teams.
Together with fellow free agency signee Mike Gillislee, Burkhead will form New England's one-two punch at the bigger running back position (as opposed to receiving backs James White and Dion Lewis). In that role, he will likely see less snaps than Gillislee but probably still be a valuable contributor as a rotational option – similar to how the Bengals used him after Bernard’s season-ending injury.
Furthermore, Burkhead's special teams prowess is also projected to be on display. While some of the roles he played last season are already in the safe hands of returning starters – gunners Matthew Slater, Jonathan Jones and Brandon King; personal punt protector Nate Ebner – it would not be a surprise to see the veteran be used in a variety of roles in the kicking game; most prominently as an option at kickoff returner.
All in all, Burkhead’s first and possibly last – given the length of his contract – season in New England will likely be a busy one for the four-year veteran. And in case he performs well in the roles he is given, he might be in line for another payday.