The Patriots have 22 players set to hit unrestricted free agency when the NFL league year opens March 17. As that date approaches, we’re taking a closer look at New England’s free agents.
Up next: running back Rex Burkhead
2020 stats: 10 games, 67 carries, rushing 274 yards, three TDs, 25 catches, 192 receiving yards, three TDs
Likelihood of return: strong
Analysis: Burkhead was having a fantastic 2020 season before blowing out his knee 10 games in, and now he’s unlikely to draw substantial interest on the open market.
Burkhead will be 31 in July, which is already pretty old for a running back. He’s never been the most durable player since coming to New England, and now he’s coming off a severe injury that could delay the start of his 2021 season. So, it’s unlikely Burkhead will sign for anything more than a veteran minimum contract this offseason.
Because of the Top 51 rule (only the top 51 players’ salary cap hits count against a team’s cap until after training camp is over), Burkhead would only subtract about $300,000 from the Patriots’ $60 million-plus in cap space. A minimum contract worth $780,000 would come off the books and be replaced by Burkhead’s veteran minimum deal worth roughly $1.05 million. So, really, there’s no reason not to bring him back if he wants to continue his career in New England.
The Patriots could definitely use Burkhead again in 2021. He’s a versatile player who can run the ball on early downs and goal-line situations, catch and block out of the backfield and contribute on special teams. Because of that, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has called Burkhead one of New England’s most versatile players.
Burkhead might not be ready for the start of the offseason workout program or training camp, but the Patriots like having depth in their backfield, and if James White walks in free agency, they might need an experienced pass-catcher on third down. Damien Harris and Sony Michel mostly work on early downs, and it’s tough to predict J.J. Taylor’s role moving forward. Taylor has the skills to work as a third-down back, but he would need to make progress in blitz pickup this offseason. Taylor also mostly was used as an early-down rusher as a rookie in 2020.