Rex Burkhead did something Sunday night he’d previously only done three times in his career: play more than 30 offensive snaps in an NFL game.
Primarily just a special teams player during his four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Burkhead has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat in his first year with the New England Patriots. That’s been especially true of late, as Burkhead and Dion Lewis have surpassed Mike Gillislee on the Patriots’ depth chart at running back.
Burkhead played 27 offensive snaps during New England’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago — a season-high at the time — then was on the field for 36 offensive snaps in Sunday night’s 41-16 thrashing of the Denver Broncos.
For comparison’s sake, Burkhead played a total of 107 offensive snaps during the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons. It wasn’t until late last season, after fellow Bengals running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill went down with injuries, that the 27-year-old finally saw extended playing time outside of the kicking game.
“Whatever way the coaches see me fit and whatever role they want to put me in that gives our team the best chance to win, I’m more than happy to do that,” Burkhead said Monday in a conference call. “So whenever your number is called or wherever they feel like I should be, I’m happy to do it.”
Burkhead missed four games earlier this season with injured ribs, but he’s made the most of his playing time since returning to action, amassing 288 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown on 31 touches in wins over the Atlanta Falcons, Chargers and Broncos.
Sunday’s game showcased Burkhead’s versatility. With Gillislee (healthy scratch) inactive, he carried the ball a season-high 10 times for 36 yards, caught three passes on three targets for 27 yards and a score and also blocked a punt. On two of his receptions, including his touchdown catch, Burkhead was split out wide as a receiver.
The Patriots signed Burkhead to a one-year, $3.15 million contract this past spring, a clear sign they viewed him as more than a special teams standout. Knowing his role would expand this season, Burkhead said he’s dedicated additional time to improving his conditioning.
“I have, actually,” Burkhead said. “Just doing some things on the side just to make sure I’m in good shape and staying on top of the conditioning, just because you never know what your workload could be or how the game goes or whatnot, and especially playing in a high altitude (Sunday) night.
“So I’m just staying on top of that. (Patriots strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera) does a great job with us in the strength and conditioning department here, so I’m just making sure I’m on top of that, because you never know how many snaps you may play, so you’ve just got to be ready.”
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