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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Rex Burkhead’s outlook will be tied to his recovery

Related: Patriots free agency profile: S Terrence Brooks

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is running back Rex Burkhead, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: Rex Burkhead

Position: Running back

Jersey number: 34

Opening day age: 31

Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

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 four seasons, he became a regular of New England’s running back rotation and special teams units despite occasionally dealing with injury. Burkhead therefore enters the open market again having appeared in 47 of a possible 71 regular season and playoff games, during which he touched the football a combined 390 times for 2,128 yards and 21 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 2020 season look like? Coming off a productive third season with the Patriots, Burkhead again played a prominent role in the team’s offensive backfield in 2020. Serving as the change-of-pace back alongside early-down runners Damien Harris and Sony Michel as well as receiving/third down option James White, he was used in a rotational capacity. Whenever he was on the field, however, he generally performed very well and was one of the few bright spots of New England’s otherwise struggling offense.

Burkhead started the season by appearing in each of the Patriots’ first 10 games of the season and proving himself a steady presence while others dealt with health issues (Harris, Michel) or personal developments (White). During those games, he was on the field for 269 of a possible 662 offensive snaps (40.6%) and posted some strong numbers as a ballcarrier: Burkhead was handed the football 67 time and he gained 274 yards in the process while also scoring three touchdowns.

The veteran also showed up as a receiver out of the backfield by catching 25 of the 30 passes traveling his way and gaining 192 yards through the air. Burkhead also found the end zone three times — twice on passes by Cam Newton, once on a trick play with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers throwing the ball. On top of it all, he was on the field for 112 of 246 special teams snaps (45.5%) between Week 1 and Week 10, serving on both return squads and on the punt coverage team.

Unfortunately, however, Burkhead’s season came to an abrupt end in late November. In the third quarter of the Patriots’ loss against the Houston Texans, he suffered a serious knee injury that later turned out to be a torn ACL. Burkhead was moved to season-ending injured reserve and underwent surgery on his injured knee just a short time later.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? When he arrived in the league as a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, Burkhead signed a standard four-year rookie pact with the Bengals that was worth $2.3 million. He played out the contract before joining the Patriots on a one-year, $3.2 million contract in 2017; the following offseason, he signed a three-year extension at a value of $9.8 million — one that was renegotiated in 2020. All in all, Burkhead’s contractual career earnings are estimated at around $13.9 million by Over The Cap.

Which teams might be in the running? The recovery process from his season-ending knee injury will be a determining factor when it comes to how much attention Burkhead will receive after the market opens on March 17. Teams such as the San Francisco 49ers or Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be interested in bringing him in as an experienced rotational option capable of contributing on both offense and in the kicking game.

Why should he be expected back? Despite some injuries over the last four seasons, Burkhead has been a reliable member of the Patriots’ offense — one that incorporated him as a change-of-pace back in both the running and the passing game. This comparatively specialized role fit him well, and keeping him in this capacity would also ensure that New England’s backfield stays somewhat intact with James White headed for free agency as well.

Why should he be expected to leave? Coming off a major knee injury and on the wrong side of 30, Burkhead’s outlook will be closely tied to his recovery and ability to return to the same level of play he showed early on in 2020. If the Patriots feel uncomfortable given those circumstances, or simply plan to go in another direction — second-year man J.J. Taylor might be a potential replacement for Burkhead — they could very well decide to part ways with the experienced back.

What is his projected free agency outcome? Burkhead has been a valuable member of New England’s offense ever since his arrival in 2017, but the Patriots are paying for future projection not past production. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise if they decided not to make him a priority once free agency opens next month. This approach could lead to him moving on if a chance presented itself elsewhere, but might also allow the team to bring him back on a one-year, minimum-level deal to at least compete in training camp.