Don't underestimate the return of Rex Burkhead

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN: New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN: New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Rex Burkhead is back on the Patriots roster, and he's more than just a depth piece.

Don't underestimate the versatility and toughness that the running back will bring to the Patriots offense. He showed in his brief time on the field to start the season that he has a chance to be as vital a piece to the group as anyone.

Who got the ball on the very first play of the season from scrimmage? That would be Burkhead, who took it up the middle for six rugged yards. Burkhead certainly runs the way Bill Belichick wants his early-down backs to run, downhill and decisive with power and discipline as he follows his blockers. He showed his capabilities as a runner against the Texans with this 12-yard run, where he broke away from a would-be tackler and cut around James Devlin to find a seam up the middle.

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However, Burkhead's real value will come in the passing game. He couldn't make the catch on this simple dump-off from Tom Brady, but this play shows how comfortable the Patriots are using him similarly to Julian Edelman. Be prepared to see him motion across the formation a lot when he's in there.

via Gfycat

Sony Michel is well-established as the Patriots' early down runner and James White is Brady's go-to back on third downs. But Burkhead should function as the all-purpose, swiss-army-knife back. He'll give the Patriots offense a level of balance and versatility that's hard to project with Michel and White on the field. Pair one of them with Burkhead, and suddenly the offense is a lot harder to predict.

The most promising play Burkhead made this season came in the Patriots' Week 3 loss to the Lions. Josh McDaniels leaves the Lions' heads spinning as Brady motions Burkhead from the backfield to a bunch formation, then White from outside the hash marks to the backfield. The motion left all six Lions defenders who were off the line just scrambling around, unsure who or where to cover. And none of them got to Burkhead, who took the screen pass and rumbled for 19 yards, and broke at least one tackle along the way.

via Gfycat

With Burkhead officially activated from injured reserve and having practiced with the team for the past few weeks, he certainly seems ready to jump back into the fray and do exactly what he was doing prior to his neck injury that shelved him for nine weeks.

The big question with Burkhead, of course, is health. He's unquestionably a tough player, but his durability has not quite measured up to his ability in his time with the Patriots.

But the good news for this offense is, it took a nice step in the right direction without him against the Jets. The biggest development for Brady in particular (besides really clicking with Josh Gordon) is that he spread the ball around, completing passes to eight different receivers.

Burkhead should certainly be a part of that mix right away, and his mere presence on the field should help to keep opposing defenses guessing.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].