The New England Patriots’ rushing attack worked pretty well on Sunday against the New York Jets: with Sony Michel and James White as the one-two punch, the team ran for a combined 216 yards — easily the most of its season so far — and a touchdown on 35 carries. As productive as the group was versus the Jets, there is still room for improvement especially when it comes to the depth alongside Michel and White.
Enter Rex Burkhead. The Patriots originally designated him as their second player to return off injured reserve earlier this month, and yesterday he was finally activated to the 53-man roster. Let’s take a closer look at what this move means for New England moving forward.
The Patriots offense is back at full strength
Against the Jets, the Patriots fielded their healthiest offensive lineup since week six’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs: tight end Rob Gronkowski and right guard Shaq Mason returned from their injuries, while the aforementioned Michel appeared to be back at full strength. Now, Burkhead will add another playmaker to the unit — one that should play around one third of offensive snaps as a versatile and proven weapon out of the backfield — to finally bring it back to full strength. The rich just got a bit richer.
New England adds much-needed depth at running back...
The Patriots receive a boost at a position group that certainly needs it from a depth standpoint. While the team’s running back corps was one of the NFL’s deepest to open the year, injuries suffered by Jeremy Hill (out since week one; torn ACL), Burkhead (out since week three; neck) and most recently Sony Michel (missed three games; knee) have forced the team to turn to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and receiving back James White. Burkhead’s return is big for the group and the offense as a whole.
...while Burkhead takes pressure off Michel and White
Ever since Burkhead went down with a neck injury against the Detroit Lions in week three, Sony Michel and James White served as the top duo at running back. With the 28-year old returning maybe as early as Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, both players will be under less pressure to perform: Burkhead has the between-the-tackles ability to sub in for Michel as the lead back on early downs, while he also is an option as a pass catcher out of the backfield similar to White. All in all, this gives New England more flexibility.
Burkhead adds depth in the kicking game
While his most noticeable contributions come as a member of the Patriots offense, Burkhead also is a regular on special teams: over the first three games of the season — before he was placed on injured reserve — he was on the field for 41.2% of New England’s kicking game snaps (35 of 85). Considering that kick coverage has been an area of concern for the team over its first 10 contests, getting Burkhead back should help turn the unit’s fortunes around even further.
Yesterday’s transactions created cap space for the Patriots
Players on injured reserve are paid regular salaries just like those on the active, 53-man squad. Therefore, yesterday’s transactions — activating Burkhead and releasing backup offensive lineman Matt Tobin to make room for him — actually increased the Patriots’ salary cap space: according to the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan, New England’s cap room grew by $185,295 and now sits at $4,583,137.