With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at he fantasy back to own in the New England Patriots’ ever-evolving committee backfield.
The Patriots have boasted a top-10 scoring offense in 14 consecutive seasons. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been the only constants, and they’ve helped produce a wide array of fantasy stars of all shapes and sizes over the years. The 2018 season will once again bring new challenges for the offense due to the departures of wide receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Dion Lewis, as well as a four-game suspension for slot receiver Julian Edelman. One of the few constants is versatile sixth-year back Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead Thrived in 2017 When Healthy
Belichick has never been one to reveal much about his game plans, so last season’s depth chart at running back was fairly cloudy heading into Week 1. Burkhead ultimately earned the first start, though a ribs injury sustained the following week knocked him out of action until Week 7. Burkhead would again miss extended time after injuring his knee in Week 15 against the Steelers, but not before he’d established himself as one of the league’s most productive fantasy assets over the second half of the season during that eight-week stretch:
- 14.9 PPR points per game (eighth among running backs)
- 6 total touchdowns (tie-third)
- 2.14 yards per route run (third, per Pro Football Focus)
It wasn’t like the Patriots uprooted their offense in an attempt to feature Burkhead; he only averaged 7.9 carries and 4.0 targets per game during that stretch. Still, he finished the season tied with Chicago’s Jordan Howard for the 20th-most carries (7) inside the 5-yard line and managed to convert 3-of-6 targets inside the 20 into touchdowns. Running backs of all types have historically thrived when paired with elite quarterbacks, so it’s not surprising Burkhead was able to maintain a fantasy-friendly workload despite a limited amount of total touches.
Offseason Moves Favor Sexy Rexy
The running back room in New England is packed, with six players (seven if you count Cordarrelle Patterson) vying for roster spots. Burkhead, rookie first-rounder Sony Michel, and passing-down specialist James White are the best candidates to form a three-headed committee.
- Michel is the first Patriots running back off the boards in fantasy drafts as of this writing, with an ADP of RB23 in PPR. He formed an explosive two-back committee with Nick Chubb at Georgia, and it seems unlikely that the Patriots don’t at least feature Michel to a moderate extent. Belichick‘s only other first-round back was Laurence Maroney in 2006, and while Maroney didn’t immediately become the focal point of the offense, he did as a rookie see more than 15 carries per game in Weeks 1-5 as part of a three-back committee with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk. That said, it’s far from a given Michel will immediately inherit all of Dion Lewis‘ old workload, especially seeing as how he fumbled once every 54.6 touches in college and caught only nine passes as a senior.
- White has firmly established himself as the Patriots go-to back in passing and hurry-up situations. He’s handled 7.2 combined targets and rush attempts per game over the past three seasons. While his ability to catch the ball from the slot or out wide could prove especially valuable during Edelman’s suspension, his status as a satellite back doesn’t make him a huge candidate to absorb much, if any, of Lewis’ carries.
- While either 2018 free-agent acquisition Jeremy Hill or 2017 trade acquisition Mike Gillislee making the roster could conceivably eat into the goal-line work, both early-down veteran backs could also be released prior to the season without costing the Patriots much.
Brady’s Running Back is a Fantasy-Friendly Gig
Burkhead achieved RB8 status in his aforementioned seven-game stretch. Patriots running backs have ranked among the top-eight units in PPR points, total yards from scrimmage, receptions, and total touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, per Graham Barfield.
While some years have yielded more productive backfields than others, Brady offenses has consistently supported multiple viable fantasy backs:
Patriots RB1 and RB2 ranks in total PPR
2017: RB 15 – RB 38
2016: RB 9 – RB 27
2015: RB 43 – RB 44
2014: RB 20 – RB 64
2013: RB 36 – RB 37
2012: RB 15 – RB 23
Sony Michel ADP: RB 23
Rex Burkhead: RB 37
James White: RB 55
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 27, 2018
2018 Fantasy Stock
Burkhead’s status as a potential goal-line back that’s also active in the passing game in New England’s potent offense should come with a top-10 ceiling and low-end-flex floor. The threat of Hill or Gillislee securing a fantasy-friendly role still looms, but Burkhead’s current ADP is closer to his floor than ceiling.
Months spent analyzing the NFL Draft can sometimes skew our attention towards those players, such as Michel, but don’t forget about the reliable veterans who’ve already integrated themselves into high-caliber offenses.
Burkhead’s 2017 performance extrapolated over an entire season would have made him one of fantasy’s most productive backs, and there’s reason to believe more of the same could be in store in 2018.
You can use our tools to research more player- or team-specific questions for yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.
Pictured above: Rex Burkhead
Photo credit: Matt Kartozian – USA TODAY Sports