Rex Burkhead

Will Tom Brady's departure make these Patriots weapons better or worse in 2020?

Will Tom Brady's departure make these Patriots weapons better or worse in 2020?

Disappointing rookies and mostly underwhelming veterans marred the Patriots' offense last season.

So did having a pissy quarterback, injuries to the offensive line and no tight ends — but now the line is healed, the QB is gone and at least there are bodies at tight end. 

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So let's see where the arrow should realistically be pointing for the returning #weaponz. Will these individuals be better or worse in 2020? 

SONY MICHEL: BETTER

2019 stats: 247 carries, 912 yards (3.7 yards/carry), 7 TD

With major injuries at offensive line and fullback, Michel took a step backward in his second season. James Develin has since retired, but the offensive line is returning, including the surprise move of retaining Joe Thuney. 

DAMIEN HARRIS: BETTER

2019 stats: 2 games played, 4 carries, 12 yards

Boy, you'd have to think he'll be better, right? The 2019 third-round pick looked good in preseason, then played in only two games all season. His lack of usage was a season-long mystery, meaning either last year was some weird red-shirt year or the Patriots just think he stinks.

We'll find out, as five carries is all it will take for him to surpass his total from last season. 

JAMES WHITE: SAME

2019 stats: 67 carries, 263 yards (3.9 yards/carry), TD; 72 receptions, 645 yards, 5 TD

This is a coin toss. He'll be an awesome asset for Stidham, but Brady relied on him pretty heavily the last couple of years, so I can't see him being much better.

A repeat of his production in the receiving game would be fine, especially if Michel does more as a lead back. 

REX BURKHEAD: WORSE

2019 stats: 66 carries, 302 yards (4.6 yards/carry), 3 TD; 27 receptions, 279 yards 

The touchdowns weren't there, but last year was the best season yards-wise of Burkhead's Patriots career. He's a hard player to project because you don't know (a) Whether he'll be healthy or (b) Why the Patriots like him so much. 

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JULIAN EDELMAN: WORSE

2019 stats: 100 receptions, 1,117 yards, 6 TD

Tom Brady loved Julian Edelman. We don't know how a 33-year-old Edelman will click with Jarrett Stidham, but it's fair to assume he won't be fifth in the league in catches like he was last season. 

N'KEAL HARRY: BETTER

2019 stats: 7 games played, 7 receptions, 105 yards, 2 TD

Harry remains an unknown after missing the first half of the season and being a healthy scratch for a game once he came off IR. Missing part of training camp can really set a rookie back, so the question now is whether he gets any semblance of a regular camp in Year 2 given all that's going on with COVID-19. 

MOHAMED SANU: BETTER

2019 stats with NE: 8 games played, 26 receptions, 207 yards, TD

Sanu has been a pretty good receiver throughout his career. He was not that with the Patriots, even when you factor in that he was playing with a bad ankle. The hands weren't there, the blocking famously wasn't there on that jet sweep to N'Keal Harry against the Bills and overall his performance was not worth the steep price paid (the 55th overall pick, which the Falcons then traded for Hayden Hurst) for his services.  

All that is to say this: Sanu can't possibly be as bad as that, right? He's gotten surgery for that high ankle sprain and will be both healthy and better-adjusted to New England's offense. Unless the 30-year-old is just cooked, 600 yards should be a realistic mark. 

JAKOBI MEYERS: BETTER

2019 stats: 26 receptions, 359 yards

I'll be honest: I watched every Patriots game last season and do not remember him having 359 receiving yards. Anyway, we all saw that he and Stidham had a good rapport in the preseason, but that's the preseason. I think Meyers will be better because he's got a quarterback that trusts him.

If he can't improve given those circumstances, that could just about do it for the undrafted receiver. 

Why Rex Burkhead is 'very impressed' with what he saw from Jarrett Stidham last year

Why Rex Burkhead is 'very impressed' with what he saw from Jarrett Stidham last year

Jarrett Stidham has received plenty of support as he prepares to take over for Tom Brady as the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots.

From college teammates like Darius Slayton to current teammates like Devin McCourty, there's no shortage of Stidham believers out there. In fact, another Patriots teammate recently showed faith in the 23-year-old Auburn product.

Appearing on WEEI's "Ordway, Merloni & Fauria," running back Rex Burkhead raved about Stidham's ability to quickly pick up the Patriots offense during his rookie year.

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"Very impressed," Burkhead said when asked about Stidham. "Last year even though he didn’t step on the field that much, just seeing his improvement every day on the practice field, in meetings. He’s a very humble guy and he came in eager to work right away and picked it up so quickly. I think that is what struck me, how quickly he picked up the offense from the get-go.

"He’s out there making calls, making adjustments in audibles like he has been in this system for a while. I’m excited for him. Excited for his opportunity. Whoever is at quarterback —  whether it’s him, Hoy (Brian Hoyer), whoever — just ready to follow them."

Unless the Patriots making a surprising move for a quarterback (the Cam Newton rumors continue to fly), Stidham should have a real opportunity to prove himself in 2020. Considering what we keep hearing about his work ethic, perhaps moving on from Brady won't be as hard as we once thought it would be.

Patriots Roster Reset: Can Sony Michel provide value for RBs in passing game?

Patriots Roster Reset: Can Sony Michel provide value for RBs in passing game?

The Patriots offense is going to be different in 2020. Bill Belichick told us as much ahead of the draft.

Will it be a complete overhaul? Will it be torn down and reconstructed to fit the skill set of Jarrett Stidham? Not entirely. Tweaked, though? Yep. We just don't know to what extent. 

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What we do know is that the Patriots will rely on their running game and hence their running backs. They did in 2018 when they rode a ground-and-pound attack to a Super Bowl. They did 2019, when they finished as a top-10 team in rush attempts.

One would assume the same will hold true as the Patriots adapt to life without Tom Brady. 

Will that approach prove to be a productive one, though? A year ago the Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. A healthy offensive line should help. Talent added to the tight end room in the form of two third-round draft choices should help. 

Hard-charging running backs should help, too. The Patriots have a few of those. They have several backs with experience in the system. They have a couple who are excellent receivers. The pieces are there. The question is how easy will they make life on their new young quarterback?

LOCK ‘EM IN

The Patriots haven’t had to do much tweaking to their running back room this offseason. They were set there. 

Sony Michel is coming off a sub-optimal Year 2 but back for Year 3. James White will likely be a captain and counted on as one of the team’s most dependable offensive weapons. Rex Burkhead should be in the mix as well — his versatility to run between the tackles and catch out of the backfield is unique to this unit — unless he ends up being a cap casualty. (The Patriots could save about $3 million on the cap if they part ways with him.)

Damien Harris, a third-rounder from a year ago brought in to back up Michel, should return as well; Michel’s injury history is significant enough that having a backup “big back” still makes sense. 

That’s not a bad top four. Depth here will matter, it’s safe to assume, since the Patriots will likely continue to emphasize the running game with a young quarterback behind center.

ON THE BUBBLE

The one name we didn’t mention above who spent last season on the active roster is Brandon Bolden. He was once again one of the team’s top players in the kicking game, and I’d expect he’s back.

But the reality of the NFL is that a special teamer whose release could save the team some money — the Patriots could open up about $1.5 million in cap space and eat only $500,000 in dead money if they release him in camp — is always on the bubble. 

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LONG SHOTS

Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor measured in at 5-foot-5 at the combine this year. The Patriots have him listed at 5-foot-6. Either way, the Arizona product’s height alone qualifies him as an NFL long shot. There just ain’t many built like him in pro football.

Add in the fact that the Patriots were pretty well-stocked with backs before Taylor’s arrival, and he’s the easy choice for this category...

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

...But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be watching Taylor like hawks whenever the Patriots finally take the field. He's so damn fun to watch, we might not be able to help ourselves. 

Taylor is a pint-sized dynamo at the position with good hands and excellent change-of-direction skills. His height actually benefited him at times in college, it seemed, because he disappeared behind offensive linemen and then popped through creases where defenders weren’t looking.

There’s some Dion Lewis to his game in that Taylor left would-be tacklers at the college level weak-kneed with hesitation moves, dead-leg cuts and explosive horizontal jukes. (Maybe not-so-coincidentally, Taylor’s No. 1 height-weight-athleticism comparison on Mockdraftable.com is Lewis.) 

Because of Taylor’s size, his durability and his ability to hold up in pass protection are legitimate question marks. But with the ball in his hands, he’s electric. If there’s an injury to either Patriots pass-catching back, or if the Patriots move on from Burkhead for cap reasons, Taylor would be a logical fill-in. If the roster locks at this position hold true, Taylor could be destined for the practice squad. 

X-FACTOR

Sony Michel's hands are X-Factors No. 1 and 2 for this group. 

When he was a rookie, I made the argument that he was the most predictable individual player in the NFL. (The Patriots ran with Michel on the field 76 percent of that time that season, more than any regularly-used back in the NFL.) Last year, things got better. Not much, though. They ran with Michel on the field 66 percent of the time. (In 2016, with 250-pound bruiser LeGarrette Blount on the field, the Patriots ran 64 percent of the time.) 

That's not who we thought Michel was coming out of Georgia, though. Michel factored into the passing game there, catching 57 passes in his last three seasons. That versatility — versatility the Patriots had been lacking outside of Dion Lewis prior to Michel's arrival — seemed to make him worthy of a first-round pick. 

Perhaps in his third year, without having to deal with injury headed into the season, with an offense that'll likely be catered to allowing younger players like Jarrett Stidham and N'Keal Harry to thrive, Michel will finally find his feet in the passing game. The Patriots could use it. 

Rex Burkhead has been valuable when on the field because he's an unpredictable player for opposing defenses; you can't simply key-in on him and know whether the play will be a run or a pass. But Burkhead has missed significant time over the years due to injury. If Michel could provide just a little bit of the same uncertainty in defenders' minds when he enters the Patriots huddle, that'd go a long way in making this unit more effective.