The New England Patriots’ offense saw considerable turnover this offseason. Tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement. Starting left tackle Trent Brown was among four starting/top rotational-level players to leave the club in free agency. Assistant coaches Chad O’Shea and Jerry Schuplinski both joint Brian Flores’ staff with the Miami Dolphins. Needless to say that the unit’s 2019 version will look noticeably different both on and off the field.
One position, however, has been a model of stability: running back. While second-year man Sony Michel is still on the PUP list to start training camp, the rest of the group did only get deeper this offseason. A pair of rookies was added to the equation in third-round pick Damien Harris and undrafted free agent Nick Brossette, while veteran back and special teamer Brandon Bolden was re-signed after a one-year stint in Miami.
Add that to the returning group of Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead and you get yourself a deep position with plenty of upside. One of those veterans, Rex Burkhead, stepped in front of the media after Friday’s training camp practice to talk about the Patritos’ ground game. And judging by his remarks, the 29-year-old seems pretty happy with the new additions to the running back room like the aforementioned Damien Harris.
“He’s doing a great job, great kid,” Burkhead said about the 87th overall selection of this year’s draft that is seeing extensive practice reps with Sony Michel still recovering from offseason knee arthroscopy. “He’s actually from where my parents went to college, [Eastern Kentucky University]. His dad played there as well so we have some familiarity there. Overall, great kid. He’s worked his tail off and not afraid to ask questions whenever he has them.”
Harris is the highest-profile addition the Patriots made to their already talented group of running backs. But he’s far from the only new face in the room, as the team also added an assistant to work alongside positional coach Ivan Fears: Cole Popovich, who is entering his fifth year with the organization — the first four of which were of course spent as a coaching assistant with a focus on the offensive line.
“He’s been great,” Burkhead said about Popovich and what he brings to the table. “You know Cole, he’s worked with the line before, so he really understands blocking schemes, pass protections, and he’s helped us out tremendously in those areas. He’s just another piece that we’ve added within our unit, and any time he’s talking we listen because we know he has great wisdom and great words of advice for us.”
While Popovich and the aforementioned Brandon Bolden have experience inside the Patriots organization, Harris and the other players brought in over the course of the offseason have to get used to their new environment — something Burkhead, himself brought on as a free agent signing in 2017, acknowledged: “Whether it’s a rookie or someone from another team, of course it’s going to be different than where they came from.”
“Just kind of giving them a heads-up of how it is beforehand, and if they have any questions, being there to answer, not just being selfish and focusing only on you,” he said when speaking about how veterans like himself have to behave around rookies and free agency/trade acquisitions. “Just trying to help teammates out and bring them along as well.”