Rex Burkhead is known as a change-of-pace running back, but the truth is that his versatility needs to be showcased more on an every-down basis.
Rex Burkhead, the soon to be 30-year-old running back, finds himself smothered in the New England Patriots backfield. Accompanying him are Sony Michel, James White, Brandon Bolden, and Damien Harris.
New England is known for their “running back by committee” strategy for personnel usage in the running game. Few backs in the Bill Belichick era have gotten the lion’s share of the touches in the Patriots offense.
Interestingly enough, only five running backs since 2000 have accumulated 1000 yards on the ground for New England: Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Burkhead get the 345 carries that Corey DIllon got in 2004, but I am saying he needs to get more than the 65 rush attempts he got in 2019.
Burkhead plays running back and receiver, and the majority of his snaps come on special teams. He’s a jack of all trades; however, the latter part of the term “master of none” does not apply to Rex.
Burkhead is an interesting weapon — a Swiss Army knife, if you will. Burkhead’s 4.65 rush yards per attempt is better than Michel’s 3.7 and White’s 3.9. He has a keen ability to make the first man miss with a devastating jump cut.
Take a look at Burkhead making Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, and (almost) Joe Haden miss the tackle:
Burkhead has an uncanny ability to shake tackles, but when he does get hit, he doesn’t go down too easily.
Burkhead leads the trio of him, Michel, and White in terms of rush yards after contact per attempt. Burkhead gets contacted, but often slips the tackle or powers forward for extra yardage better than any of the other New England backs.
A clear example of this was Burkhead’s touchdown in Week 16 of 2019, as New England played host to Buffalo in a critical late-season game. Late in the fourth quarter, New England had driven down to the goal line, and on a first down-and-goal, they ran a power run play to the right.
One of Buffalo’s best tackling defenders, Lorenzo Alexander, made it seem as if Burkhead was a bouncy ball — and simply fell right off of him when he attempted the tackle. Two other Buffalo defenders were in the backfield to greet Burkhead, but it seemed to be no problem.
The Patriots have clear tendencies as to when they run the ball or pass the ball — and it is hindering their offense.
The Patriots love having versatile running backs; we all know that.
However, the problem about all the running backs having a different skill set is that they get predictable.
Sony Michel caught only 12 balls in 2019 and James White averaged only 4.5 carries a game. If Sony Michel’s in the game, it is more probable than not that the Patriots will run the ball, and if White is in the backfield? Think pass.
Burkhead on the other hand? Well, he had 302 yards rushing and 279 yards receiving. Burkhead is a little tougher to get a grasp on.
The narrative about Burkhead is an unfair one, as many refer to him as a “change of pace” back — but the reality is that Burkhead is much more versatile than either White or Michel.
Burkhead runs the ball with tremendous ability. A prime example came when New England played Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game.
Who carried the ball late in the game when it mattered the most? Not Michel, but Burkhead.
His receiving ability isn’t as exceptional as James White’s, but it’s still more than good enough to have defenses respect him in the pass game. Think back to Week 2 of the 2019 season: Burkhead lined up in the slot and caught a beautiful 32-yard pass from Tom Brady. Burkhead’s over-the-shoulder catch was not a ball that most offenses would attempt to throw to their running back.
What it came down to in 2019 for New England was that their offense needed trick plays to get up and down the field.
Think back to the Kansas City regular season game in which the Patriots’ first touchdown came on a flea flicker. How did they get in position to possibly tie the game late in the fourth quarter? Just your ordinary pass from James White to Jakobi Meyers.
If you think back to January 2020 in Foxborough, the reason New England lost to Tennessee was because of their failure on the offensive side of the ball. New England had no real skill positions that kept defenses up at night, and their leading receiver was a former quarterback in college that ended up having a critical drop in the fourth quarter.
What makes New England’s loss to the Titans back in January even more disappointing is the lack of touches they decided to give Burkhead in the game. They ran him three times and threw to him another three. He amassed 16 total yards in the game.
One wouldn’t have to look back very far to remember who got New England out of poor field position to start their game-clinching drive in Super Bowl 53.
New England’s offense was painful to watch when last we watched it, and I’m sure Rex Burkhead could’ve changed the narrative of that game with the juice he provides.
Bottom line: In a 2020 season that could have either Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer at the helm, I think it’s necessary to have a spark plug like Burkhead seeing more than 23% of the offensive snaps for the New England Patriots.