His surprising decision to contemplate retirement has hamstrung them at their thinnest position, and head coach Bill Belichick is as confused as anyone over Burgess' disappearing act.
"I would describe [the situation] as I don’t know," Belichick said Monday, three days after saying he expected Burgess to report for the opening of training camp. "I don’t think he knows for sure, either."
Burgess, who is entering his 10th season and turns 32 next week, signed a one-year contract less than three months ago, so it's fair to say the Patriots were blindsided by his absence, especially after he reported to New England's voluntary organized team activities and mandatory minicamp in June.
Now, Burgess won't give the front office a straight answer, and it sounds like he's not returning some of his teammates' calls, either.
"I've left him some messages," Patriots outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "I think he's just probably going through that stage that a lot of veterans go through when you get 10, 11 years in the league. You have to make a personal decision on whether you want to keep going or not, and I respect his situation. If he shows up, great. If not, we'll move on without him, and I think we have the guys here that can still get the job done."
Banta-Cain is the unquestioned leader of New England's outside linebackers, with or without Burgess. However, without Burgess, the Patriots have looked toward Rob Ninkovich, rookie Jermaine Cunningham, Pierre Woods and Marques Murrell. If the season started today, Ninkovich would likely receive the majority of the reps, but Cunningham has come on more and more in the recent days of training camp.
Burgess registered five sacks in 2009 — his first year in New England — so it's not like he's leaving the Patriots undressed in the middle of a snowstorm. But, since the position has a lot of question marks, they'd like to have as many options as possible with the hopes of finding an answer or two.
"I really don’t even think about it," Ninkovich said when asked how the team feels about the criticism of the outside linebackers. "People are going to say what they're going to say, and I'm just going to go out there and work hard, do my job and do what I have to do."
Banta-Cain said Cunningham will be a "great player" when he puts it all together, so the future might be bright for the Patriots' outside linebackers. The present, though, is uncertain, with Burgess and everyone else.