Attempting to foresee which Patriots running back will take the lead has been a difficult preseason challenge over the last few years. In 2018, an early candidate is Rex Burkhead.
Still, there are mitigating concerns around the 28-year-old this season. While searching through running back fantasy rankings before a draft, there are a few things to consider about Burkhead’s role in the New England backfield.
After initially signing a one-year deal with the Patriots in 2017, the versatile running back re-signed in early 2018 on a three-year contract. It came following a season in which Burkhead compiled eight touchdowns (five rushing, three receiving) in 10 games.
Shortly after deciding to return to the Patriots, Burkhead watched as the team drafted running back Sony Michel in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. On the surface, it made him a member of a crowded depth chart.
Yet Michel has battled an injury through preseason, and will take time to get up to speed as a rookie.
According to reports, Burkhead’s planned role appears to be extensive.
Jeff Howe of The Athletic wrote that the Patriots, “expect [Burkhead] to be a focal point of the offense during the regular season, especially while Edelman is suspended.”
The Edelman reference brings up an interesting aspect of Burkhead’s game: his pass catching ability, which is particularly applicable in point-per-reception (PPR) fantasy leagues.
ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry included Burkhead as a running back he “loves” in his “Love/Hate” column, which included this:
After their bye last season, Burkhead had more carries from the 5-yard line and in than the rest of the team combined. And he missed two games! Remember, 15 of the Patriots’ rushing scores came in goal-to-go situations and Rex’s versatility (30 catches in 10 games last season) gives them flexibility in terms of playcalling. Patriots RBs ran 55 slot routes last season and it’s certainly something we’ll see Burkhead do, especially with Julian Edelman out for the first four games.
The risks for Burkhead revolve around two things: the potential of Michel or fellow running back Jeremy Hill encroaching on his goal-line carries (which Berry later alluded to), and of potential injuries.
In fact, Burkhead is already playing with an injury. As Howe reported in mid-August:
More clarity: Burkhead is dealing with a slight tear in his knee, but it’s been deemed a minor injury and something he’ll be able to play through. Since it’s the preseason, maintenance takes the priority over everything else.
— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) August 17, 2018
The “slight tear” is the reason why the Patriots have been cautious with Burkhead in the preseason. Injuries limited his production in 2017.
According to ESPN stats, the New England running back has an average draft position of 80.9 in PPR leagues.