The Patriots will be without Rex Burkhead again on Monday night. How will they replace him against the Jets? Will they replace him at all?
Burkhead was ruled out for his team's Week 7 matchup in New Jersey one day after he'd been listed as "questionable" for the game with a foot injury. He was downgraded to "out" on Sunday, ensuring that he'd miss his third consecutive game. Burkhead dealt with a foot injury going into Week 4 in Buffalo and was limited in that game, playing only 12 snaps.
His continued absence is a significant one for the Patriots in that when he's been healthy he's been their best all-purpose back. He leads all Patriots backs in yards per carry (4.7), putting his average more than a full yard better than Sony Michel's (3.5). His yards per reception (8.4) are slightly higher than that of primary pass-catching back James White (7.2).
Given the injuries the Patriots are dealing with at receiver -- Josh Gordon (knee, ankle) has already been ruled out while Julian Edelman (chest), Phillip Dorsett (hamstring) and Gunner Olszewski (hamstring) are questionable -- Burkhead would've given the Patriots another capable pass-catcher for Tom Brady to turn to. Plus, the Jets have had issues covering backs in the passing game this year. They're 27th in the league in terms of success rate allowed to pass-catching running backs, and they're 22nd in yards per target to running backs.
In the last three weeks, with Burkhead hurt, White has seen a total of 28 targets. It would come as little surprise if White approached double-digit looks from Brady on Monday night with Burkhead out. Michel (five catches on six targets) and Brandon Bolden (three catches, three targets) have also factored into the passing game with Rex Burkhead out the last two weeks.
Will Damien Harris make his pro debut in uniform with Burkhead down again? Given little has changed at the running back spot in terms of player availability in the last couple weeks, my guess would be no.
The Patriots have already made five players inactive: Burkhead, Gordon, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Michael Bennett. Harris and Korey Cunningham (healthy scratch the last four games) would make sense as the final two. As is the case with Harris, Cunningham's position group hasn't undergone any changes due to injury this week that would prompt his activation.
Byron Cowart and Joejuan Williams were healthy scratches last week and could be held out again this weekend. But Cowart could end up in uniform with Bennett out. And Williams might have a chance at contributing given that he's played in two games as a special teamer, and he could help the team's secondary depth should Patrick Chung (eight snaps last week, questionable for Monday with heel and chest injuries) be limited.
There's always the chance that Harris has improved in practice to the point of proving that he's worthy of game action. And if the team has been disappointed in its running game -- 3.4 yards per rush last week, 3.5 on the season -- maybe it'll turn to the third-round rookie for a bit of a spark.
But if Harris hasn't played to this point, and if little has changed with the health of Patriots backs over the course of the last few weeks, then he may be looking at another game off.
If this ended up being a "redshirt" season for him, while disappointing for those who enjoyed watching him run with power at Alabama, Harrid could look a few stalls down in the locker room for evidence that a slow start isn't the worst thing for a young back in this offense. White played in just three games as a rookie and touched the ball 14 times. Two years later he was arguably the most valuable player on the field not named Brady in Super Bowl LI.
With Rex Burkhead (foot) downgraded to out, time to finally see Damien Harris? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston