It’s been a confusing year for the running backs of the New England Patriots. There are four backs who have all shared the starter role, and all four have been inactive at one point or another during the regular season.
None had a more topsy-turvy season than Rex Burkhead. He started as a pass-catching alternative to Mike Gillislee, and caught a touchdown Week Two against the Saints. Burkhead was then slowed by a hamstring injury midseason before a major resurgence in November. He finished the regular season with at least one score in four straight contests, replacing Gillislee as the short-yardage back in a split with Dion Lewis.
It was serving this short-yardage role that Burkhead acquired his latest injury. Burkhead left a pivotal contest against the Steelers, and was ruled out for the night with a sprained knee. We haven’t seen Burkhead in action since December 17th, and he’s been ruled out for New England’s playoff tilt against the Titans.
Burkhead made the most of the bye week, and was noted as a participant in practices last week. But Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald noted that Burkhead was still favoring his knee in practice this week, and had some more ominous observations:
Burkhead had a brace on his left knee and couldn’t complete most of his stretches that pertained to the left leg. He favored the knee while lunging to that side and also couldn’t pull back his left foot while stretching his quad.
All of that pointed towards inactive on Saturday, and that’s where we are now.
It’s a tough loss for the Patriots, who used Burkhead as a Swiss Army knife this season. Burkhead started the season as a type of flanker back, and would even sometimes line up in the slot. He gradually moved toward the backfield, where he excelled both between the tackles and running routes. Late in the season, he was the short-yardage back but was also catching passes in the redzone. The Patriots used five running backs this season, but all of them could have been replaced at one point by a healthy Burkhead.
As a participant in practice, in appears at least that Burkhead is on his way back to the field. Mike Gillislee is still banged up, making James White and Dion Lewis the only active backs for the team’s Divisional Playoff meeting with Tennessee.
Burkhead spent his first four seasons in Cincinnati before joining the Patriots in March. He signed a one-year deal worth $3.15 million, and was expected to fill a void left by departing back LeGarrette Blount.