Rex Burkhead Shows #Patriots Fans Why Team Signed Him vs Texans

If it wasn’t week two of the preseason we’d be talking about Rex Burkhead’s breakout performance all week, and we still probably will.

In just 13 offensive snaps, Burkhead showed Patriots fans why the team signed him to a one-year, $3.15 million deal, which was the largest contract the Pats have given a running back since Fred Taylor in 2009.

What Burkhead gives the Patriots is versatility, but that’s putting it in its simplest form.

As good as Super Bowl hero James White was last year, the Patriots became very predictable as an offense when White was on the field. The same was true when LeGarrette Blount was in the backfield.

White logged 407 snaps during the 2016 regular season, and of those 407 snaps, 323 of them were pass plays (79.4%). In the playoffs, it was even more dramatic, as 95 of White’s 105 snaps were pass plays.

With Burkhead, the Patriots have an option out of the backfield that can both run the ball effectively and serve as a receiver.

We got a glimpse of how dangerous a versatile running back could be in the Pats offense with Dion Lewis in 2015, but injuries have prevented Lewis from returning to his 2015 form.

Burkhead may not be as dynamic in space as Lewis, but he can hold his own as a ball carrier and receiver, which gives Josh McDaniels all sorts of flexibility with his play calling when Burkhead is on the field.

I went back to Burkhead’s 2016 season with the Bengals, as well as his first game as a Patriot, to illustrate his effectiveness as a dual-threat running back.

As a Ball Carrier

It wasn’t the best performance for Burkhead on the ground vs the Texans (7 carries, 20 yards), but his tape from 2016 shows that he has great understanding of how to be an efficient runner.

He’s not on Le’Veon Bell’s level, but Burkhead shows off great patience and vision, and averaged an impressive 3.03 yards after contact per rush in 2016, according to PFF*.

There are two elements of Burkhead’s running style that impressed me other than his shiftiness and vision.

First, on a few of the plays above, Burkhead displays burst through the hole or to the edge that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The run against Pittsburgh last season was the best example of this. The play is designed to be a handoff up the middle, but the running lane is quickly shut down by the Steelers defensive front. Burkhead show’s great patience and vision to bounce the run to the outside, and has impressive speed, and acceleration to turn the corner.

Second, Burkhead frequently shows the ability to “get skinny” or to fit his body into tight spaces. You see that with his longest run against the Texans, an 8-yard scamper where he’s navigating through traffic. He also broke off a big run against Baltimore last season where almost shrinks to get through the line. That’s an added bonus to his game.

You wouldn’t expect Burkhead to rattle of an 1,000-yard season in 2017, but 4.6 yards per carry in 2016, and 4.3 YPC for his career is nothing to sniff at.

Burkhead will be a reliable ball carrier in the Pats power-run scheme.

Pass Catching

Burkhead only has 34 career receptions, but he’s very comfortable being a receiver. He’s got the quickness to get open underneath and reliable hands (just one drop on 45 career targets).

The Bengals moved Burkhead around the formation a tiny bit, but it wasn’t excessive like the Pats have done in the past with their receiving backs. Instead, Burkhead caught the bulk of his 17 receptions in 2016 out of the backfield on either check downs or screens. He’s a mismatch against most linebackers in man coverage, and is a patient runner that makes plays off of screen passes. Although he doesn’t have a ton of production to speak of as a receiver, you can see that he has the skill.

Against the Texans, Burkhead fit right in as the Patriots pass catching back. He made a somewhat difficult catch over his head on his first reception, and showed good after the catch ability on all three grabs.

The touchdown reception against Houston was a vintage play design by the Patriots, and a thing of beauty from Burkhead.  Texans LB Zach Cunningham is a rookie, but he’s known to be an athletic freak that can cover in space. The move Burkhead puts on him for the easy TD is filthy, nasty, whatever adjective you want to use. It’s a classic Patriots angle route after the middle of the field releases. You see him pull off a similar move against Pittsburgh LB Lawrence Timmons on the next clip. He has very similar movements to James White in this regard.

Pass Protection/Blitz Pick-Up

Burkhead performed adequately as a blocker last season with the Bengals. According to PFF*, Burkhead allowed three pressures and one quarterback hit in 44 pass block snaps. Furthermore, PFF gave him a pass block efficiency rating, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting towards sacks, of 94.9, which isn’t elite, but is respectable. Here were the Patriots running back’s PBE ratings in 2016 (min. 10 snaps):

James White – 96.5

James Develin – 95.8

LeGarrette Blount – 89.3

Dion Lewis – 86.5

Burkhead showed that he’s more than capable of picking up the blitz against the Texans when he took on a full-speed A-Gap blitz from Texans LB Brian Cushing. Although Brady is nearly intercepted on the pass, Burkhead saves him from taking a huge shot from Cushing.

If Burkhead can continue to do his job in this regard, and be a willing blocker, the Patriots will be able to keep him on the field in all situations.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like from a Patriots perspective with Rex Burkhead.

On the field, you see above how his dual-threat ability will be a problem for defenses in 2017. Unlike James White, Burkhead give’s Josh McDanielsl flexibility with his formations and play calling. McDaniels will be able to keep defenses guessing at every turn.

One would expect that we see Burkhead line up all over the formation this season. The Patriots love to pick out specific matchups, especially against linebackers, that they feel they can exploit at any given time. McDaniels will find a number of different ways to get Burkhead singled up with a linebacker in coverage, and Burkhead will have no problem making plays.

The Patriots have arguable the best backfield of the Belichick era. It hurts to take away snaps from Super Bowl hero James White, and his achievements last season cannot be overlooked. Mike Gillislee is also a good addition that should see plenty of carries, and Dion Lewis is an option as well.

Burkhead was hidden behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard with the Bengals, but we got to see what he could do in the second half of 2016, and against the Texans last Saturday night.

(All Pro Football Focus stats come from: https://www.profootballfocus.com/products/elite#edge)