Rex Burkhead

Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at the guys who will (or won't) be running the football for the Patriots in 2018.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED


The running back position was one of the deepest and most consistent on the Patriots roster in 2017. The team's collection of backs, coached by Ivan Fears, were good enough that the player signed in the offseason to replace LeGarrette Blount ended up having a hard time finding the field. Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the stretch run of the season, while Dion Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry and helped make the Patriots more of an unpredictable offense with his ability to both run out of heavy formations and align as a receiver when called upon. Lewis caught 32 passes for 214 yards, but the diminutive back was at his best as a runner. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranked fourth in the league in average yards after contact per carry (3.2) and fifth in forcing missed tackles as a runner. He made 42 tacklers miss, just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell in a whopping 141 fewer rushing attempts. James White didn't finish the season with the same kind of flare he did in 2016, but his 2017 regular season wasn't all that far off from the year prior in terms of his production. He had 60 catches for 551 yards in 2016 and 56 for 429 in 2017. Rex Burkhead was limited by injury throughout the course of the season but provided value as a rusher, receiver and special teamer. The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in rush yards per game (118.1) and 12th in yards per attempt (4.2) and were tied as the third-best team in the league in terms of protecting the football (four rushing fumbles, two lost). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
White, Gillislee

WHO ISN'T?
Lewis, Burkhead, Brandon Bolden

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Right now, the position doesn't look all that different than it did in 2016, when the Patriots offense was the fourth-best team in the league in terms of yards and third-best in terms of points. They had their sub-back (White) and their hammer (Blount). If Gillislee can take on the Blount role, they'd have both roles covered once again. The Patriots, though, could use an all-purpose runner to add to the mix. After the 2016 campaign, the team wanted to become more unpredictable, and they found a better mix with a healthy Lewis and an occasionally-healthy Burkhead. Bringing one of those players back in 2018, or someone like them, would seem to be a priority this offseason. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The name topping everyone's list right now at this position this offseason is Bell's. One of the best dual-threat backs the league has seen in recent memory, he's going to be paid handsomely. Whether that's via the franchise tag (which he was given last season) or a long-term deal worth somewhere in the range of $11 million per year, he's not going to be on New England's radar in all likelihood. Others available? San Francisco's Carlos Hyde, Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon and Indy's Frank Gore are the best multi-purpose backs out there. Would the Patriots be willing to extend for someone like Hyde, who could argue he's worth somewhere in the range of $6 million per year, per Spotrac? 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


For the second consecutive year, it looks like the college ranks have churned out a fine running back class, with plenty of players who can do a little bit of everything. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is the cream of the crop and could be gone within the top five picks of the draft. LSU's Derrius Guice is more of a violent between-the-tackles runner and could hear his name called by the end of Day 1 or the start of Day 2. The next tier of backs could be the sweet spot for anyone looking for an every-down runner. USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Sony Michel, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and San Diego's State's Rashaad Penny may not be perfect prospects, but experts say all four have shown promise as potential three-down players.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?

As was the case with the tackle group, Bill Belichick's best option may be to go with what he had in 2017. If Lewis isn't blown away by another team's offer in free-agency, it'd make sense to try to bring him back. Should Lewis end up capitalizing on his last season elsewhere, Burkhead should offer the Patriots good value. Durability may be a concern, but the Patriots know what Burkhead's capable of, he understands the offense, and after missing six games last season, he won't be looking to break the bank. If neither of those familiar faces is interested in a return, McKinnon, 25, is an enticing option in free agency. He may be more receiver (51 catches last season) than a runner (150 carries), but he forced 39 total missed tackles on his 201 touches and had PFF's fifth-best running back grade in 2017. The 2014 combine standout would also provide some value as a kick-returning option; that was Lewis' gig last season. As far as the draft goes, Penny would be intriguing in the middle rounds because the SDSU offense used some the pro-style concepts -- the Aztecs leaned on the I-formation, for instance -- that would be thrown his way in Foxboro.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

Rex Burkhead says he's healthy as he looks past quiet AFC Championship, ahead to Super Bowl

Rex Burkhead says he's healthy as he looks past quiet AFC Championship, ahead to Super Bowl

FOXBORO — Rex Burkhead celebrated a full week of not injuring Tom Brady in practice by holding court with media members Friday. 

The topics were the usual — prep for the Super Bowl, what it’s like to face the Patriots and then join them during this run, etc. — but the most important question Burkhead could answer these days (other than “are you going to injure Tom Brady again?”; that wasn’t asked) was about his health. 

After all, one of the eyebrow-raisers from last week’s AFC Championship win over the Jaguars was that Burkhead had a season-low three snaps in his return from a knee injury. 

Of course, there’s always uncertainty in a player’s first game back; it just seemed safe to assume he’d have more than one rush for five yards and a target that he didn't catch. 

At any rate, Burkhead says he’s healthy. 

“I’m feeling good,” Burkhead. “I’m good.” 

Asked about the low snap count, Burkhead said he does “whatever the coaches want” him to do. 

They want him to play well when healthy, something for which Burkhead certainly hopes as he plays in his first Super Bowl. 

They also want him to not injure Tom Brady, but there’s only time you can make that reference in a short post. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Why Burkhead's return could be key vs. Jaguars defense

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Why Burkhead's return could be key vs. Jaguars defense

Rex Burkhead had a busy week of practice last week, but it was eventually determined that his knee wasn't quite ready for the Titans. By the time the Jaguars make their way to Gillette for the AFC title game, however, Burkhead should be good to go.

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, that's the plan

Why does Burkhead's return matter when the Patriots received huge production from running backs Dion Lewis and James White in the Divisional Round? Even though that pairing combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 32 touches, having Burkhead back in the mix would be particularly useful in attacking where the Jaguars are softest. 

Jacksonville's run defense ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season, and though they've improved in that area since trading for defensive tackle Marcel Dareus, they've had trouble against running backs in the passing game in recent weeks. 

In Week 16, they allowed fullback Kyle Juszczyk of the Niners to catch five passes for 76 yards. The following week they gave up a 66-yard touchdown catch to Derrick Henry. In the Wild Card Round against the Bills, they gave up seven more catches for 54 yards to backs. And against Pittsburgh they allowed Bell to go off for nine catches for 88 yards and a score. 

The Jaguars have one of the most athletic linebacker groupings in the NFL, featuring Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, and despite what their team has allowed in terms of receiving yardage to backs, Josh McDaniels suggested on Monday that they need to be cautious in attacking that level of Jacksonville's defense. 

"It's as fast a group as we'll play. No question," McDaniels said. "I don't know what they don't do well. They run and tackle. They make plays behind the line of scrimmage in the running game. They blitz well. They're very fast. Run and chase from behind, they can do that. They play with great effort. 

"They cover well. They're asked to cover a decent chunk of the time . . . whether that's backs or tight ends. They do that. You saw Jack make an interception [against the Steelers] on third down in a man-type coverage on a tight end . . . The linebacking corps is certainly one of the best we've played all season and definitely the fastest."

For the Patriots, though, attacking the Jaguars offensively may mean finding the lesser of three evils. Do they go after the best cornerback duo in the league in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye? Do they test a front that includes Defensive Player of the Year candidate Calais Campbell and Pro Bowler Malik Jackson? Or do they challenge linebackers who have been relatively generous in the passing game lately? 

If Burkhead is in uniform Sunday, he'll give the Patriots a three-headed monster for Jack, Smith and Paul Pozluzny to deal with out of the backfield. It's not necessarily a foolproof plan for success, but against what McDaniels called the best defense the Patriots have seen all year, that doesn't exist. 

Burkhead has not played since suffering a knee injury in Week 15 against the Steelers. As a receiver, he has 30 catches on 36 targets for 254 yards and three touchdowns this season.