This week has been pretty quiet for the New England Patriots compared to last week, but no less important.
The Patriots acquired Dwayne Allen, Stephon Gilmore, and Brandin Cooks in week one of the league’s new year, which were all extremely exciting moves for the defending Super Bowl Champions. Week two saw the Patriots sign Bengals running back Rex Burkhead, and resign linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The Patriots signed Burkhead to a one year deal worth $3.15 million, including a $1.1 million signing bonus. The primary result of this signing is that LeGarrette Blount will most likely not be returning to Foxborough next season. With that contract Burkhead becomes the highest paid running back on New England’s roster. It is doubtful that the Patriots will then choose to commit an equal, or greater amount of money to Blount. However, I’ll hold off on having a memorial paragraph for Blount until we know his fate for sure.
Burkhead is not a flashy signing, but he is a player who could come into his own here in New England. He is a talented player who was overshadowed by Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard in Cincinnati. He finished last season with 74 carries for 344 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 17 receptions for 145 years. While Burkhead’s total numbers don’t pop off the page, they are impressive when you compare him to his Bengal counterpart Giovanni Bernard. Bernard had 91 carries on the season, yet still only managed 337 yards. Burkhead averaged more yards per carry than Bernard, and while this does not necessarily mean that he is the better running back, it does indicate that he is more talented than what one might expect from a third string running back.
Burkhead finished his season with a breakout game against the Baltimore Ravens in week 17. With Bernard and Hill out, Burkhead was handed the ball 27 times and turned those carries into 127 yards (4.4 yds per rush) and two touchdowns. The caveat here that some will point out is that this was a week 17 game between two teams that were already out of the playoffs. The effort might have been a little lacking, and the teams were both not at full strength. However, Burkhead showed that he had skill and is able to explode when given the opportunity.
Just because Burkhead is getting paid the most does not mean he will be the Patriots feature back. New England will continue to use a running back committee with Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and James White. Burkhead will be given plenty of opportunities both in the running game and the passing game. He will also most likely make a difference on special teams, filling Brandon Bolden’s role. Burkhead isn’t likely to run for 1000+ yards or 18 touchdowns like Blount did. However he will be able to help the Patriots offense have another dynamic playmaker who can surprise an opposing defense.
Resigning Dont’a Hightower was the most important move the Patriots have made all offseason. He has been one of the best players on the New England defense since arriving in 2012. Some people do not give Hightower the credit that he deserves because he does not fill up the stat sheet like some other players do. For example he only finished with two and a half sacks last season. However, in Hightower’s case, looking solely at the numbers vastly disrespects his skill as a player and does not give him credit for the true impact he makes on defense. Hightower is one of the best run defenders in the league. He is dominant up front and is one of the major reasons the Patriots run defense was one of the best in the league last year. Hightower is also a phenomenal blitzing linebacker. That might seem counterintuitive because of his low sack numbers. However the Patriots routinely employ delayed blitzes that help fluster opposing quarterbacks forcing them to change their minds at the last minute. Hightower also produced two safeties for the Patriots last season, both of which came on beautiful delayed blitzes that the opposing offensive lines weren’t prepared for. Hightower is also a solid pass defender. He is not fast or agile enough to frequently be in man-coverage, but that’s okay because the Patriots defensive schemes rarely ask him to do this. They play to his strengths, which is his intelligence and anticipation. He plays well in zone where he can read the quarterbacks eyes and make a bee line to the ball.
Hightower also had two of the most important plays in the Patriots previous two Super Bowls. In Super Bowl 49 Hightower brought down Marshawn Lunch at the 1-yard line on their final drive, which is what set up Malcolm Butler’s interception. In Super Bowl 51 Hightower blew by Devonte Freeman to hit Matt Ryan and cause a fumble that the Patriots recovered. Without those two plays, New England does not win those games.
Also, at just around $11 million a year, Hightower is coming back at a bargain price. I was originally expecting the price to be somewhere closer to $13-14 million.
The Patriots continue to put together the pieces needed to make another Super Bowl run next season. Between now and the draft, there are just two big questions remaining:
1. Will Malcolm Butler remain with the Patriots, or will the New Orleans Saints sign him to an offer sheet?
2. Will the Patriots hold on to Jimmy Garroppolo? (Just as a preview to a future blog, I find it highly unlikely that Bill Belichick will be able to go through the first two rounds without making a pick, which is where Jimmy comes in…)
Hopefully we get some answers to those questions soon.
Until next time- B$