Rex Burkhead's projected return should give boost to Patriots

All signs point toward Rex Burkhead's return in early December. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:

1. The Patriots’ willingness to part ways with running back Kenjon Barner this week, despite limited depth at the position and rookie Sony Michel still limited in practice with a knee injury, is reflective of their belief that Rex Burkhead is on a positive track to return to action in early December.

Burkhead landed on injured reserve with a concussion in the third week of the season, and things have gone smoothly since he returned to practice Nov. 8. The first game in which Burkhead is eligible to play is Dec. 2 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

Burkhead has been much more visible during media-access periods in the locker room recently as he re-integrates himself back into the mix with teammates. When he returns, he would likely split time with Michel in the traditional running back role: Michel projects to start, with Burkhead entering every third series and James White still leading the way as the “passing back.” Receiver/running back Cordarrelle Patterson adds a layer of emergency-based depth.

Between Burkhead and the expected return of tight end Rob Gronkowski next Sunday against the Jets, it will give the Patriots a chance to field their most complete offensive lineup of the season, just in time for the all-important home stretch.

“There’s been a lot of moving parts this year,” quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged. “We’ve got to get out there and practice together, and that transitions [to games]. We haven’t had that, which is not an excuse. Every team goes through that, but we’re trying to adjust and adapt.”

2. White has been one of the Patriots’ most consistent players this season, with his 66 receptions putting him on a pace to eclipse 100 this season and join some elite company. The only other running backs to total 100 or more receptions in a season in NFL history are Larry Centers (1995), LaDainian Tomlinson (2003) and Matt Forte (2014). The fifth-year pro said the only reason he’s aware of it is because media members remind him each week.

3a. When the Patriots acquired cornerback Jason McCourty, now in his 10th season, one of the points made by twin brother and teammate, Devin, was that he brought leadership to the locker room through his perspective. Jason McCourty was on the 0-16 Browns, and he has never played in the playoffs or been part of a team that has been 7-3 through 10 games. I caught up with McCourty before he departed for the bye week and -- showing how he has quickly adapted to the Patriots’ way of thinking -- he said, “7-3 is cool, but at this point, I don’t really care about it. It’s more focusing on the next six games, and the Jets, when we come back.”

3b. From the business side: McCourty is up to 80 percent playing time on the season, which is significant for him. If he finishes the year at 80 or higher, he will max out and earn $1 million in incentives that were part of the revised deal he signed before the season. (His base salary was trimmed, but he had a chance to earn it back through incentives.)

4a. The Patriots have had more bad game days this season than at any time over the past decade. Coming off a 34-10 loss to the Titans, it marked their third double-digit loss of the season, which is their most since 2008 (when Brady was lost for the season on the 15th offensive play with a torn ACL). Entering this year, they had just three double-digit losses in the past three seasons combined.

4b. Sunday’s loss had the potential to have a significant trickle-down effect on the team from a health standpoint, as starting left tackle Trent Brown (back), top receiver Julian Edelman (ankle) and No. 2 tight end Dwayne Allen (knee) each left the game and didn’t return. But Brown and Edelman have a good chance of playing next weekend at the Jets, while Allen is walking with the aid of crutches. One reason Allen has earned widespread respect in the locker room: toughness, as he attempted to play through his injury Sunday before being pulled from the game.

5a. Along those lines, if media members and fans had front-row seats for some of the things players go through to get themselves prepared for games, appreciation would surely grow. Take, for example, 11-year veteran Matthew Slater last Sunday at Tennessee. Slater awoke with an aggressive illness that he figured would knock him out of the game, but after taking a series of IV fluids and arriving at the stadium at the earliest possible time, he ultimately felt he was healthy enough to play. That is reflective of the pride Slater takes in his craft and not wanting to let his teammates down. Slater also is determined to help the Patriots snap out of their special-teams funk (31st in punt coverage, 29th in kickoff coverage), which he believes is all about playing with more consistency.

5b. In signing Albert McClellan (eighth NFL season) last week and Ramon Humber (10th season) this week -- and having them replace Geneo Grissom (fourth) and Nicholas Grigsby (second) -- the Patriots added 18 years of experience to their core special-teams units. It usually isn’t advised for a team to voluntarily get older on its roster, but that’s how seriously coach Bill Belichick views the team’s need to improve its special-teams performance in the short term.

6. Matt Patricia's decision to have the Detroit Lions practice in the snow on Thursday generated some headlines, especially since the team has a string of indoor games coming up on its schedule. This is right out of the Bill Belichick playbook, as Belichick almost always has his team practice outside, which can help build mental toughness and also prepare a team for the future when playing in challenging conditions. In his first year as Lions coach, Patricia is attempting to establish the culture he believes will help the team become a sustained winner; this is one example of how that culture is a significant change from the way the Lions have done things in the past.

7. Did you know: If the Patriots beat the Jets on Nov. 25, it will guarantee them a record of at least .500 for the 18th straight season, which would be the second-longest streak in NFL history, behind the Dallas Cowboys (21 years, from 1965-85).

8. How good are the 5-4 Titans? If they play the way they did Sunday against the Patriots, they can beat almost any team in the NFL. That was impressive. But we should learn a lot more about them Sunday in a road game against the suddenly surging Indianapolis Colts (4-5), because how a team handles success in the following week often is the best barometer to gauge whether a team is truly ready to make a run. Look what has happened to the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example. After a rousing Week 2 win over the Patriots, they’ve fallen off the map.

9. From the “what record is Tom Brady adding his name to” file: With his reception last Sunday at Tennessee, Brady joined Jerry Rice as the only 41-year-old players in NFL history with a catch, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

10. Patriots players are scheduled to return to the facility Monday for meetings, which means they were given four straight days off (Thursday through Sunday) on their bye. Belichick had them in full pads for Wednesday’s practice, which was held in cold and windy conditions. The focus was on fundamentals, among other things. It’s always interesting to compare how coaches handle the bye week from team to team. Adam Gase gave his Miami Dolphins players the entire week off.