FOXBORO, Mass. — Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne is thriving in his first season with the New England Patriots. And not just as a pass-catcher.
The Patriots also have introduced a new wrinkle into the 26-year-old wideout’s game, utilizing him as an occasional rusher for the first time in his NFL career.
After logging exactly zero carries over his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Bourne has six for 78 yards so far this season, with five gaining 10-plus yards and four resulting in first downs.
“It’s definitely new to me,” Bourne said Wednesday. “I’ve never really ran the ball how they use me here, and I enjoy it. I love it. It gives us a versatility, and (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) just does a good job of doing it at the perfect time. He’ll run right, right, right, then we’ll come back and go left, and defenses are just confused. They don’t really know what’s going on.
“It’s just about me getting better in that role, too. I could rush better, do things better, but (McDaniels) uses all of us well. It’s not just me rushing the ball. It’s just a different threat, and defenses hate it.”
During a Week 10 rout of the Cleveland Browns, Bourne ripped off carries of 11 yards on first-and-10, 15 yards on first-and-20 and 17 yards on second-and-10, with the latter setting up a Rhamondre Stevenson touchdown. He also carried for 16 yards on second-and-15 against the New York Jets and 12 yards on first-and-10 against the Houston Texans.
These sporadic end-arounds, jet sweeps and reverses have added a level of unpredictability to McDaniels’ offense, which uses misdirection to keep defenses off balance.
“It was kind of exciting, man,” Bourne said. “I want to be everything they want me to be. I’m trying to grow as they plan, and that’s everything for any player. What they expect from you, you want to do to the best of your ability, and when you get better at it, it just feels better, it gets easier and you get more confident. I’m just getting more confident.”
The 49ers, despite calling frequent handoffs to fellow receiver Deebo Samuel, never viewed Bourne as a viable rushing threat. He also was hardly used as a rusher in college. In his four seasons at Eastern Washington, Bourne totaled just five carries for 88 yards, 63 of which came on one long touchdown.
The Patriots, though, spotted untapped potential in their high-energy wideout.
“I think he has improved as a ball-carrier,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “Some of our players have, which is good. If you can get the ball to the skill players and they can make yards on their own, that’s a great thing. It’s not all air yards. It can be run-after-catch, breaking a tackle or getting into open space to gain extra yardage and catch-and-run plays. Things like that. He’s done a good job of that, and I think he can continue to get better.”
Bourne sees room for improvement, too. Though 34 of his 78 rushing yards have come after contact, per Pro Football Focus, he wants to be stronger at the point of attack, driving tacklers back rather than letting them halt his momentum.
“Honestly, I just need to finish better,” he said. “I keep getting tackled to the side and hit to the side, so I need to put my pads down when the journey’s over and just get the extra yards. But overall, it’s a great scheme, and Josh knows how to use all of us perfectly. And he knows how to get through to us to make us play a certain way, too.”
The chunk-gain carries are just a small part of what Bourne has brought to New England’s offense this season. Through 11 games, he leads all Patriots players in receiving yards (562 on 37 catches with three touchdowns) and has been one of the league’s most reliably efficient pass-catchers. His 12.0 yards-per-target average leads all NFL players with at least 40 targets this season, and his 78.7% catch rate ranks third among wideouts with 40-plus targets, trailing Arizona’s Rondale Moore and Christian Kirk.
Bourne, who recently earned a spot on ESPN’s “All-Underrated Team” alongside Patriots safety Kyle Dugger, said he never envisioned his debut season in New England would be this productive. The three-year, $15 million contract he signed in March has looked like a bargain thus far.
“They’re developing me perfectly,” he said. “It’s just crazy how it is playing out. I didn’t think it was going to be this good. But we’ve got to keep it up — not get ahead of myself, not dwell on the past, just live in the moment and make the most of each moment.”