Tuesday, August 23, 2016
By Paul Dehner Jr.
August 22, 2016
WEST CARROLLTON — Few positions in the NFL take more pounding than running backs. Across the league last year, teams were forced into second, third and fourth strings. The running back by committee is more the norm than exception.
Yet, in Cincinnati, for the last two seasons Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have been stalwarts. One of the two started each of the last 34 games in the backfield.
Behind those two, waiting patiently has been Rex Burkhead. Now entering his fourth season and final year of his rookie contract out of Nebraska, he has fewer carries than any running back in his 2013 draft class still in the league. His 13 carries rank 21st out of 21.
At that position, you’d expect frustration, depression, malcontent, maybe even lobbying for a trade.
Not here. Not Rex. For the consummate good guy with a permanent smile, reality is the exact opposite, actually.
“Of all the running backs on our team, he might be the least maintenance guy we have,” running backs coach Kyle Caskey said. “He comes, does his job, everybody cheers him on because he finishes so well and he’s always running fast to the ball. People follow him even though he’s buried a little bit farther down on the depth chart.”
Burkhead produced new reasons to cheer him on Thursday in Detroit. Given his most significant playing time at the position since beating out Dan Herron as a rookie, he broke into the open field often with seven touches for 73 yards.
In fact, he racked up more yards against the Lions than in either of the last two preseasons.
Burkhead rushed four times for 42 yards and caught three passes for 31 yards. He returned a kickoff for the first time since his freshman year at Nebraska and made a tackle on special teams. Marvin Lewis referred to Burkhead’s play as “great” after the game, and it offered a reminder of the depth available should injury strike Bernard and/or Hill.
“The line did a tremendous job, even AJ (McCarron) checking the ball down to me,” Burkhead said. “It was fun. I think I was able to show multiple things doing the kick return as well. Getting a tackle on special teams too. A good opportunity for me and I enjoyed it.”
The other 31 teams should enjoy it as well. Burkhead is good enough to play in this league, but had the unfortunate position on this roster.
But with the Detroit film on the record and two more weeks where he’ll get even more chances, this could end up his final audition for the 2017 season as a running back. Whether in Cincinnati or possibly another city where more opportunity is available. Thinking about that is only natural, but Burkhead tries to keep it to a minimum.
“You do a little bit, but at the same time I want to focus on this year,” he said. “That’s my main focus to get this team in a position where we can win the Super Bowl. Whatever role on the team I can help out the team I want to do. Whatever happens after the season happens.”
What’s happening now is the latest creativity to find ways to involve him. Last year, he spent a good portion of the season learning receiver.
He is back to the running back room now, but spent time running the Wildcat formation as well - now inserting into the kick-return rotation.
He’s as versatile as any offensive player.
“When you get buried behind a couple guys like Jeremy and Gio we have to find different avenues to get him involved and get him the ball,” Caskey said. “It’s a good problem to have because he is so talented it gives you another weapon. With the running back situation it’s hard to say we are going to take one of those two guys off the field. But he’s fully capable if he ever gets a chance which he proved the other night in Detroit.”
Burkhead hopes the momentum carries over to the next two games even with the understanding that he’ll then revert back to playing the role of offensive afterthought. Just don’t expect any complaining or even anything but a wide smile and focus on his role.
“Just try to stay positive and stay patient even though it’s Year Four,” Burkhead. “That’s all you can do. Any time when you get an opportunity just try to make the most of it.”
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