Rex Burkhead Is a Sneaky and Important Signing for the Patriots

Burkhead doesn't have a household name, but his fit with the Patriots couldn't be more obvious.

When I was a little kid, I used to be fascinated with dinosaurs.

I was obsessed with the movie Jurassic Park, and I wanted badly to be a paleontologist when I grew up. My parents can attest: I would take flatware spoons into the backyard and dig holes for hours to see if our Milwaukee home had any fossils hidden just out of sight.

The New England Patriots went digging themselves in free agency and might have found a perfect specimen, preserved and waiting for them: running back Rex Burkhead.

The Patriots went looking for another versatile asset to add to their championship research team, and they found it in Burkhead, who they poached from the Cincinnati Bengals’ scrapheap. But Burkhead has a grand total of one career start and fewer than 100 rushing attempts on his record.

Despite these worries, this Rex can be tyrannical in the New England backfield if used properly.

Piecing It Together

The Patriots scrapped and clawed their way to their second Super Bowl title in three years this past February, excavating their chances from being buried under an historic deficit. They did this largely on the backs of their running back group, including receiving threat James White -- who should have won the Super Bowl MVP award.

It’s no secret that New England loves their backfield pieces -- so much so that they’ve averaged nearly five running backs per year earning at least 20 carries in a given season.

The Patriots spread the ball around on offense, and the run game is no exception. This past year, however, only three running backs combined for 402 of their 410 rushing attempts -- and one of them is no longer under contract.

That one is LeGarrette Blount, currently a free agent, who accounted for 299 of those rushing attempts and 1.14 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP).

Blount churned out 1,161 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground this year, creating more than 70 percent of both their rushing touches and rushing yards and 100 percent of their rushing scores. That’s a lot of production currently left on the table.

Dion Lewis and White still reside on the Patriots’ depth chart, though the latter is almost exclusively a receiving back (70 career rushes to 145 receptions). Lewis projects as the starting running back for the Patriots this year and has the versatility of skill-set to play all three downs.

Over the last two years, Lewis has earned 0.14 Rushing NEP per attempt on 113 carries -- which would have come in fifth-highest among the 65 running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts last year. Lewis also earned 0.38 Reception NEP per target on 74 targets over that span of time.

The one bugaboo for Lewis is his inability to stay healthy. Over the last two years, he’s played in just 14 games out of a possible 32 and has just 38 games played in his six-year career.

With limited players and ones with long injury histories ahead of him, there’s a decent chance that Rex Burkhead will be relied on pretty heavily with the Pats.

Digging up Dirt

Burkhead received a one-year, $3.15 million deal from the Patriots, their single largest season paycheck since Fred Taylor in 2010. For a team that loves to rotate runners and is as notorious for being penny-pinchers at this position as Matt Millen’s Detroit Lions were for drafting bad wide receivers early, this deal should be a big signal to watchers of the NFL: Rex is going to get work.

Add in that over 300 opportunities (rushes and targets) from last year are available, and you have the perfect situation for someone to step in and seize a job. Burkhead could be that guy.

One of the issues with projecting Burkhead, however, is that he himself just doesn’t have much of an NFL track record. Before 2016, he had never had even 20 opportunities in a season. The table below shows Burkhead’s per-snap usage rates in his career (per

Rex Burkhead Snaps Rushes Targets Usage Rate
2014 33 9 10 57.58%
2015 73 4 15 26.03%
2016 240 74 20 39.17%
Career 346 87 45 38.15%

All things considered, earning a look on near two-fifths of the plays he’s in for isn’t half bad for a third-down running back playing behind two usage monsters for the last three years in Giovani Bernard (38.1 snaps per game, 39.64 percent usage) and Jeremy Hill (29.9 snaps per game, 53.1 percent usage).

This is especially true when we realize that Dion Lewis plays just about 32.9 snaps per game over the past two years and sees a rush or target on a sizable -- but not impenetrable -- 40.56 percent of those plays. If Burkhead can establish himself as effective early on, that could lead to him soaking up some additional work from Lewis.

But what role will Burkhead establish himself in?

We know that White and Lewis already split a fair portion of the receiving targets, so it’s not likely Burkhead gets dealt a large slice of that pie, but when we look at the Patriots’ rushing effectiveness by direction, we can see where Burkhead might be used.

NE by Direction Left Middle Right
Rush Attempts 130 178 100
Yards/Att 4.55 3.57 4.07
Rush NEP/P 0.02 0.01 0.06
Rush Success Rate 40.77% 40.45% 43.00%

There’s a glaring hole of ineffectiveness right up the gut for the Patriots, both in terms of rushing yards per attempt and in the value analytics of Rushing NEP per attempt and Rushing Success Rate -- the percent of run plays that gain positive value.

When we look at Burkhead’s directional production by Rushing NEP last year, we can see that he addresses effectiveness in a lot of places, but specifically up the middle, where his value added per-attempt was significantly more than the team average (0.02).

Burkhead by Direction Left Middle Right
Rush Attempts 25 15 34
Yards/Att 4.76 5.27 4.29
Rush NEP/P 0.23 0.24 0.15
Rush Success Rate 64.00% 53.33% 52.94%

Now, small sample size caveats do come into effect here, but there is a striking difference between the results of Rex Burkhead with the ball in his hands and LeGarrette Blount -- and Blount scored a touchdown on 3.35 percent of the time more often than Burkhead, adding to his value that much more often.

The Bare Bones

Burkhead is no lock to be anything more than a third-string running back, injury insurance, or a special-teamer, but the value of the contract and the places where he’s effective as a rusher lead us to believe there might be more than what’s on the surface in New England. In addition, he's exactly in the same size mold of former Bill Belichick bell-cow backs Corey Dillon and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Would anyone be surprised if Dion Lewis’ recovery from the hamstring injury that removed him from Super Bowl LI was much worse than expected at this point in the offseason and that Burkhead was brought in essentially to duplicate him?

Burkhead’s receiving value in 2016 (0.38 Reception NEP per target) is nearly identical to Lewis’s per-target Reception NEP over the last two seasons, and he has theoretically more tread left on his tires, considering Lewis' multiple soft tissue injuries in his legs.

The Patriots could still add to this group in the coming months, especially in the draft, but right now they seem to have unearthed the missing link to sustaining their backfield’s success in 2017: Burkheadeous Rex. The offensive firepower he joins and the openness of opportunities are too good to ignore.