Ivan Fears hated to see Rex Burkhead carted off the NRG Stadium field last week. He knows losing the veteran change-of-pace back to a season-ending knee injury will be a significant blow to the New England Patriots’ running back room, both on and off the field.
But Fears also confident in the Patriots’ ability to replace him.
“Rex was a special guy as far as the way he handled himself off the field and the way he contributed on the field,” Fears, the Patriots’ longtime running backs coach, said Friday in a video conference. “He was involved in a lot of special teams, as well as having a hell of a role on offense.
“So that’s going to be a big void to fill. But that’s an opportunity for somebody else. Somebody’s got to step up and take his place, and I fully expect our guys to do that. I’ve got a great room, a great bunch of guys in there, and I don’t expect us to lose a step in that room. But missing Rex personally, I love the kid.”
Burkhead was in the midst of a career year before his injury, on pace for personal bests in carries, rushing yards, catches, receiving yards and total touchdowns. The Patriots, who rank fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per game and eighth in yards per carry this season, now will rely on a backfield combo of Damien Harris, James White, Sony Michel and J.J. Taylor, along with quarterback Cam Newton.
Michel will be a player to watch this week as he makes his return from injured reserve. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he expects Michel to be active Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals after missing the last seven games with a quad injury.
“He’s getting back to where he was, no doubt about it,” Fears said of Michel. “It’s been a good layoff for him. He’s showing some freshness in his body, and I’m looking forward to getting him back on the field.”
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots utilize Michel, who lacks Burkhead’s versatility and pass-catching ability. The 2018 first-round draft pick been New England’s lead back since he entered the NFL, but Harris has impressed in that role during Michel’s absence and should remain atop the team’s running back depth chart.
Harris has averaged 5.4 yards per carry over seven appearances this season, tied for fifth-best in the NFL behind Kyler Murray, Nick Chubb, Miles Sanders and Lamar Jackson.
The intriguing Taylor projects as a potential dual-threat back, but Fears said the undrafted rookie’s game has some holes that need patching. Taylor has not seen the field since Week 3 and seems to be no more than an emergency option at this point, even with Burkhead now unavailable.
“He’s got a lot of good people in front of him right now, but he’ll have a role in the future, I think,” Fears said. “I think he’ll continue to grow and develop. He’s got a lot to learn about playing at this level. There are some things that I’m not going to say that he’s got to improve on for us, but I really like the kid’s natural running ability. His vision, his style of running. The guy can run with power for a little guy, he’s got great vision, he can see, he can make those sudden cuts. He’s got that kind of ability, that open-field running.
“There’s a lot of things about this kid that you’re going to like. He’s really, believe me, tripped our interest. He just needs to — there’s some things we’re going to ask him to do that’s going to help him in the future. But if I had to play him, we could find a role for J.J., no doubt about it. If we had to play him.”
Burkhead earlier this week confirmed he will not return this season but said he looks forward to “coming back better than ever in 2021.”