Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s offensive backfield.
Name: Rex Burkhead
Position: Running back
Jersey number: 34
Opening day age: 30
Size: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Burkhead arrived in the NFL in 2013, when the Cincinnati Bengals selected him with the 190th pick in the draft. While he did make the Bengals’ 53-man roster despite his late-round status, Burkhead’s career with the club started slowly: he appeared in only one game as a rookie, and played just 17 total snaps (all on special teams). His role in the kicking game continued to increase over the following two seasons, but he still continued to see only marginal action at the running back position.
His career trajectory up until that point changed in 2016, however: playing all 16 of Cincinnati’s games for the second year in a row, Burkhead set new career marks in every major offensive category and finished the season with 91 touches for 489 yards and two touchdowns while serving as a change-of-pace back. His performance during the final year of his rookie contract also caught the eyes of the Patriots, who signed Burkhead to a one-year, $3.15 million deal in unrestricted free agency.
Over the next three seasons, he became a regular of New England’s running back rotation and special teams units despite occasionally dealing with injury. Burkhead therefore enters his fourth season with the club having appeared in 37 of a possible 55 regular season and playoff games, during which he touched the football a combined 298 times for 1,662 yards and 15 touchdowns — including the game winner in the 2019 AFC Championship Game that paved the way to his first Super Bowl appearance and victory.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off a season in which he missed eight games because of a neck injury but also helped the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Burkhead returned in his usual role within the team’s offense: he served as a change-of-pace back alongside early-down runner Sony Michel and receiving/third down option James White. While this role led to him being used only in a rotational fashion, the ex-Bengal generally performed well whenever he was on the field on offense and special teams.
All in all, Burkhead’s 2019 campaign was one of the best of his career from a statistical perspective. Between his 13 regular season games — he missed three contests in October due to a foot injury — and lone playoff appearance, he registered 68 rushing attempts for a combined 306 yards and three touchdowns, and also added 30 catches for 311 additional yards. His numbers may not necessarily stand out, but they do reflect his role within New England’s running back rotation alongside Michel and White.
In this capacity, Burkhead was on the field for 275 of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (22.7%) during the 2019 season — a slight increase in playing time share compared to his first two seasons with the Patriots. This can be explained with better durability but also might be a result of New England’s inconsistent run blocking calling for a shiftier option than, for example, Sony Michel. Either way, Burkhead did see regular action and touches the team’s de facto RB3. His usage did expand beyond that role, however.
Burkhead also was given consistent action in the kicking game: he played 50.6% of the Patriots’ special teams snaps (240 of 474), which tied him for fifth on the team. As a member of all four kick coverage units, he also registered six combined tackles and helped New England field one of the best special teams units in the NFL: while the Patriots’ returners averaged 21.7 and 8.5 yards per kickoff and punt return, respectively, other teams were able to gain only 20.9 and 6.3 yards against the club.
What is his projected role? Ever since arriving in New England in 2017, Burkhead has served as the team’s change-of-pace back to take some pressure off the early-down and receiving options. This role is not expected to change in 2020 given his skillset as a runner and receiver, even though his eventual playing time share could come down to factors such as his health as well as the development of second-year back Damien Harris.
What is his special teams value? While not as prominent a member of the Patriots’ kicking game units as fellow running back Brandon Bolden, Burkhead did see regular action in the game’s third phase since joining the Patriots. In 2019, the team used him extensively on all four coverage units: he played a defensive role on punt and kickoff coverage, and also was used on both return squads. The 29-year-old is expected to resume this role in 2020.
Does he have positional versatility? As can be seen by his numbers, the Patriots like to use Burkhead both as a ball-carrier and as a receiving option out of the backfield. He does have some versatility beyond accumulating his touches, though: he also was split out wide on 33 occasions during the last season, and also saw 18 snaps in the slot. Burkhead primarily lines up as a halfback, but New England has not shied away from moving him around.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of a three-year contract extension he signed with the Patriots during the 2018 offseason, Burkhead currently hits the team’s salary cap with $3.91 million — a number that could be reduced in various ways: New England could opt to either trade or release the veteran to create net savings of $2.3 million, or sign him to another extension. None of the moves would be too big a surprise.
What is his roster outlook? Given his contract situation in combination with the Patriots’ depth at the running back position, Burkhead cannot be considered a lock to make the 53-man roster this fall. He does have experience both on offense and in the kicking game, and has proven his value multiple times over the last three years, but the former sixth-round draft pick will need to show that he can defend the RB3 role over the course of the summer.