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What bringing Rex Burkhead back from injured reserve means for the Patriots

New England decided to designate the running back as its second return player.

New England Patriots v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

While the New England Patriots offense is dealing with notable injuries — from left tackle Trent Brown’s illness, to right guard Shaq Mason’s calf to tight end Rob Gronkowski’s back and ankle — the unit received an encouraging boost yesterday: running back Rex Burkhead, who was placed on injured reserve in late September due to a neck injury, returned to practice and will soon boost a running back corps that has deal with issues of its own.

Let’s find out what Burkhead’s return means for the Patriots.

Burkhead will have to wait a bit for his actual activation

Even though he rejoined the Patriots’ practice yesterday, Burkhead is not yet part of the team’s 53-man roster and will not be able to appear in a game until week 13’s tilt against the Minnesota Vikings. After all, players need to sit out at least eight weeks after being placed on injured reserve before being able to return to actual game action. So while the 28-year old will eventually come back — unless he suffers a setback in practice — his on-field return will have to wait until at least December 2.

New England adds much-needed depth at running back

That being said: the Patriots will soon receive a boost at a position group that certainly needs additional depth. While New England’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 (out since week eight; knee) have forced the team to turn to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and primary receiving back James White. Getting Burkhead and Michel — the latter potentially as soon as Sunday — back will be big for the group and the offense as a whole.

The Patriots have no IR-return designations left

Two weeks ago, New England used its first return designation on cornerback Duke Dawson. The rookie was originally placed on injured due to a hamstring issue and will have to be activated by next Wednesday. But even if the team opted not to bring back Dawson and shut him down for good, it would no longer be able to designate other players on IR to return: a team only has two spots and Burkhead just took the second one. That means that all players currently on injured reserve will see their season come to an end: the aforementioned Jeremy Hill, wide receiver Riley McCarron, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, cornerback Eric Rowe, and offensive lineman Brian Schwenke would all have been eligible to be reactivated off IR. Those who might still join them on the list will also not be back until 2019.

Two transactions will soon have to be made

As noted above, unless Dawson and Burkhead suffer any setbacks during practice, they will rejoin the 53-man roster in the not too distant future. A team only has 21 days to activate a player after the return designation was placed on him, after all. As a result, New England will soon have to make two roster moves. The most likely scenarios appear to be the releases of depth players like running back Kenjon Barner or offensive lineman James Ferentz, or injured players getting moved to what is now season-ending injured reserve.