If you thought the Patriots were frustrating for Fantasy owners before, this year could be off the charts. The receiving corps got crowded with the addition of Brandin Cooks, and now the running backs are a jumbled mess after New England signed Rex Burkhead on Tuesday.
The Patriots now have three running backs with similar skill sets in Dion Lewis, James White and Burkhead. And who knows if they are done adding to their backfield, with last year’s starter, LeGarrette Blount, currently a free agent.
Good luck, Fantasy owners. It sets up as a guessing game to figure out the best one heading into the season, and maybe that’s how coach Bill Belichick likes it.
Let’s look at the current group now of Lewis, White and Burkhead, and we’ll address the backfield again if another player is added. For Burkhead, he’s another do-it-all running back the Patriots can use on offense and special teams.
He’s coming off his best year in the NFL in 2016 when he had 74 carries for 344 yards (4.7-yards per carry) and two touchdowns and 17 catches for 145 yards for the Bengals. He helped them on offense when Giovani Bernard suffered a torn ACL in Week 11, and Burkhead worked in tandem with Jeremy Hill.
Hill didn’t play in Week 17 against Baltimore because of a knee injury, and the Bengals gave Burkhead a start. He responded with 27 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns and two catches for 25 yards, which was good for 25 Fantasy points in a standard league.
We’ll see if the Patriots decide to give Burkhead more of a featured role, but the Bengals also talked about using him as a slot receiver during his tenure there, which lasted from 2013-16. Most likely, Burkhead will be part of a committee with Lewis and White.
Lewis, when healthy, has the most upside, and the Patriots are 17-0 when he’s played the past two years, including the playoffs. In 2015, he was a Fantasy standout before suffering a torn ACL in Week 9. In six full games, Lewis had at least 11 Fantasy points in a standard league in five outings, and he proved to be more than capable as a rusher and receiver with 49 carries for 234 yards (4.8-yards per carry) and two touchdowns and 36 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns.
Knee problems plagued him to start the 2016 campaign, but in seven games during the regular season, Lewis had 64 carries for 283 yards (4.4-yards per carry) and 17 catches for 94 yards. His best game was Week 15 at Denver when he had 18 carries for 95 yards and two catches for 9 yards.
While Lewis was hurt, White stepped up as the complementary running back to Blount. He closed the 2015 season with at least eight Fantasy points in a standard league in five of his final seven games, and he played well for most of the 2016 season with 39 carries for 166 yards (4.3-yards per carry) and 60 catches for 551 yards and five touchdowns.
He has 100 catches over the past two seasons for 961 yards, and we all know he was a star in Super Bowl 51 against Atlanta with six carries for 29 yards and two touchdowns and 14 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. And now White and Lewis have plenty of company with Burkhead.
Our best guess is White will remain in his role as a pass catcher out of the backfield. The Patriots have shown a reluctance to run him between the tackles, and Lewis and Burkhead can handle that job if another running back isn’t added.
Lewis and Burkhead could split early-down work and work at the goal line, and remember that Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns last year to go with 299 carries for 1,161 yards. And with the addition of Cooks to go with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola, in an offense led by Tom Brady, there’s going to be plenty of points scored, along with open running lanes.
We’ll see what happens with this backfield heading into training camp, but for now plan on Lewis as a flex option with a mid-round pick, with White and Burkhead as late-round fliers. White’s value should be higher in PPR leagues, but all three running backs should be viable in the passing game.
Don’t be surprised if Burkhead ends up as the starter, which will obviously increase his value and drop Lewis in the rankings. It’s frustrating and confusing, but the Patriots are loaded with talent, including their backfield. We just wish there was a clear indication of the pecking order out of Lewis, White and Burkhead.
And please, for our sake, don’t add another running back to the mix. It’s already messy enough.