The times they are a-changin’ in the Patriots backfield.
James White remains in New England after signing a fully guaranteed one-year deal. But there is a youth movement brewing at the running back position, and the latest indication is that veteran Rex Burkhead is signing with the Houston Texans. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reported the news on Tuesday.
Burkhead dealt with various injuries over his four seasons with the Patriots, and his 2020 season ended early due to a torn ACL. But when on the field, he was often productive in an all-purpose role. In 41 regular season games (eight starts) from 2017-20, Burkhead made 253 carries and 96 receptions, averaging 4.1 yards per rush and 8.9 yards per catch. He also scored 18 total touchdowns, 11 rushing and seven receiving. Most notably, Burkhead scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the 2018 AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs, and averaged six yards per touch in six playoff games with the Pats.
That’s a lot of production and versatility to replace.
The Patriots are not without options, though. Third-year back Damien Harris should be primed to take another step forward after getting increased playing time in 2020. Harris played 10 games, starting all of them, and got the majority of his touches on the ground. He averaged five yards per carry, albeit scoring only two touchdowns. He mixed in five receptions for 52 yards through the air.
Sony Michel also remains on the running back depth chart, but could be more a casualty of the transition than a part of the Patriots’ future. Michel is playing for his next contract in 2021 after the Patriots declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Behind Harris and White, Michel will have legitimate competition for touches – perhaps even a roster spot.
Among those competing with Michel for playing time will be second-year back J.J. Taylor, an undrafted free agent in 2020. The Patriots are high on Taylor, at least based on Ivan Fears’ rave reviews during 2020 training camp. The diminutive Taylor played six games for the Patriots in 2020 and got 24 total touches, 23 of which came on the ground. But Taylor, whom Fears described as “Little Dion” in reference to former Patriots back Dion Lewis, has potential as an elusive, explosive passing game back.
And casting a fairly large shadow over them all is rookie Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma. Considering the depth the Patriots still have and their recent history with developing running backs, Stevenson could be “redshirted” in year 1 and have to wait until 2022 to actually see the field. But the 6-foot, 227-pound bowling ball has a chance to make an early impact as a power runner in the Pats’ scheme. Head coach Bill Belichick also remarked that Stevenson has potential catching passes, too.
The Patriots obviously had enough in their arsenal to be comfortable moving on from Burkhead and letting him find an opportunity elsewhere. It remains to be seen how the depth chart shakes out in 2021. But it’s certainly starting to look different.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.