Thursday, March 16, 2017

"T-Rex" Joins "Sweet Feet" and "Little Dirty" To Form Intriguing Backfield For Patriots

"Sweet feet", "Little Dirty" and now "T-Rex" - It seems you can't be a New England Patriots' running back without having some sort of cheesy nickname.

Sweet Feet is, of course, fourth-year passing back James White, who absolutely abused the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 - while Little Dirty is Dion Lewis, an all purpose back with video game moves in the open field.  Hell, Patriots' fans may even see "Blount Force Trauma", aka LeGarrette Blount, back in uniform before the spring is out.

One never knows, but if there is one thing that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick values in a player, it is versatility - and while Blount's skill set isn't what one would necessarily call versatile, there is still something to be said for being able to line up and run the ball directly into the teeth of a defense.

To many, few things are more satisfying than the ability to run the football with success when the defense knows it is coming, but is powerless to stop it - and with the Patriots' offensive line's collective skill set being more in tune with the running game than the passing game, one would think that New England would be able to move the chains on the ground with more ease than their 3.9 yards per carry average would indicate...

...but versatile backs with the ability to haul the mail in the running game and to contribute in the passing game have eluded the Patriots for the most part and have had to rely on passing backs mixing it up in the ground game to keep defenses guessing.

Lewis is the closest the Patriots have to an every down back, while White showed enormous flashes in short yardage situations in the Super Bowl, but at 5' 8" and 195 pounds.  There are those who doubt Lewis can manage 20-plus carries per game over a full season - and White has never had to, splitting duties all the way through high school and college.

Blount has carried the load, for the most part, during the past three seasons and is certainly the default candidate in the event of injury, though he is one-dimensional which puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to open holes when the defense is stacking the box to stop Blount.

That is where "T-Rex" comes in.

Rex Burkhead rode the pine as a Cincinnati Bengal the past four seasons waiting for an opportunity behind the likes of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill, playing mostly special teams but on sparse occasions - such as the 2016 season finale - he grasped the opportunity to show what he can do, and all he did against the Baltimore Ravens and their league-best run defense was hammer out 119 yards on the ground.

On the surface, Burkhead appears to be a redundant talent on a team that already has White and Lewis, but what makes the Nebraska product more of a dynamic weapon is his running style.  Where Lewis is a sneaky runner with controlled moves that gain yards by bursting out from behind his linemen and White a balanced runner featuring a subtle elusiveness with hesitation and a wicked stutter step, Burkhead is more of a helter-skelter, knees-and-elbows back...

...his manic running style looking more like a newborn fawn trying out its legs for the first time - that is until just before contact with a defender, when the pads go down and he finishes the play by punishing the tackler.

And just the fact that Burkhead becomes the Patriots' highest-paid running back in nearly a decade - what with his one-year, $3.15 million contract - suggests that he is coming into New England not just to play special teams (he was a regular on the Bengals' core-four), and not to become a clone of White or Lewis, but to compete for the Patriots' lead back duties.

He will be competing for that spot with Lewis - whose ACL tear in late 2015 sapped some of his open field maneuverability - and with perpetual practice squad entity Tyler Gaffney, who hasn't had a regular season NFL carry in his three seasons.  Blount appears to be the odd man out in this scenario, and his series of one-year, incentive-laden deals appears to over.

But signing Burkhead for just one season put the Patriots' backfield in flux, as it makes him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, joining both White and Lewis in that capacity.  Of course, the Patriots could negotiate extensions for one or all during the season, but the feeling is that Belichick is waiting to see if Burkhead is indeed the underrated lead back he apparently envisions...

...and if Lewis regains his repertoire of moves and if White can build upon his 2016 season when he was second in targets and receptions only to wide receiver Julian Edelman, he could sign all three, relatively inexpensively, but it would appear that because Burkhead has been signed for just one season, that Belichick may not be done collecting running backs.

Pending the outcome of any deals involving the New Orleans Saints and Patriots' cornerback Malcolm Butler, New England is devoid of top draft capital - their first pick currently isn't until the third round - so a mid-round running back could be in the offing.

Leading that pack is an immature but fully capable and talented Joe Williams.  Blessed with blazing speed and a ripped torso, he wasted his first couple of years in college on suspension from Connecticut for a theft charge, spent a year at the JC level, then signed with Utah and played behind Devonte Booker in 2015, briefly 'retiring" from the game early in 2016 before returning and blowing up the PAC-12 with his elite running skills.

But he is far from a complete back and with ball security and pass protection being issues, Belichick would have his hands full making a pro player out of him - so perhaps he would feel more comfortable with a kid like Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma, who is nothing but a bulldozer that could complement the style of any of the Patriots current backs.

There are other names, and it could be that Belichick is happy with what he has, particularly knowing that he has Blount on speed dial.

Besides, neither of those college kids have cheesy nicknames.

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