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Friday, February 24, 2017

Ex-Husker running back Rex Burkhead, now a free agent, ponders next move after showing promise with Bengals





“My body feels great,” Rex Burkhead said. “I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life right now, so hopefully that continues.”

By Rich Kaipust / World-Herald Bureau

February 24, 2017

LINCOLN — Rex Burkhead could scan the internet and convince himself that any number of NFL teams might be interested in his services, with fan sites and traditional outlets saying where he potentially could be a good fit.

Burkhead instead will just wait until March 7 to see what happens.

“It’s just funny to see all the rumors and articles out there that people send me,” he said. “I hear a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re going here.’ You kind of tune it out, because you know right now none of it is really true.”

The former Nebraska I-back became an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, his fourth with the Cincinnati Bengals. The last time he was in uniform, Burkhead gave the Bengals and 31 other teams something to think about by rushing for a career-high 119 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-10 win over Baltimore.

Until noon on March 7, however, teams are not allowed to contact or enter into any kind of negotiations with an unrestricted free agent. A contract with a new club cannot be executed until March 9.

Burkhead has just gone about his business in the meantime, including a return to Lincoln on Saturday for the annual Team Jack Gala, a fundraiser in the fight against pediatric brain cancer.

“It is weird,” he said. “You kind of want to relate it to coming out of high school and picking a college, but you can talk to coaches then. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the process.”

Asked if he’s most focused on playing time, financials or winning, Burkhead said it might come down to the best combination of the three. He declined to say if he might have any specific teams in mind or whether he would seek a one-year or longer deal.

Immediately after the season, Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said the Bengals would look to re-sign the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back.

“I always wanted to play for one team my whole career,” Burkhead said, “but if the opportunity is better for my family and myself somewhere else, I’m not going to pass that up.”

Burkhead caught 16 passes over the last seven games in 2016, but it wasn’t until New Year’s Day against Baltimore that he got to be the Bengals’ feature back. With Giovani Bernard out, Burkhead picked up his 119 yards on 27 carries, and also had two receptions for 25 yards — and no doubt lifted his free-agent status.

“I think it was huge,” he said. “I hadn’t had that many carries since my days back at Nebraska. It was fun to end the season that way with the guys. It was kind of a surreal day, surreal moment.”

It was noted after the season that Burkhead averaged 4.65 yards per carry overall, while Bernard and Jeremy Hill were both under 4.0. Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese even told the Cincinnati Enquirer, in retrospect, that maybe Burkhead should have figured more heavily in the team’s plans.

“He certainly made a case for that,” Zampese said. “Maybe we were wrong. Evidence would suggest that at this point.

“He averaged 4 yards a carry in every game he played. Same line. Same calls. Four-plus. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. There’s a place for that kind of guy in our offensive system.”


The Bengals might have to fight to keep him now, after initially signing their 2013 sixth-round draft pick to a four-year, $2.2 million deal. He played in just one game as a rookie and saw limited offensive snaps the following two seasons, but also led Cincinnati in special teams tackles in 2016 after being second in 2015.

Burkhead turns 27 in July, but he had only 60 career carries before the 27 against Baltimore, leaving him more than optimistic about what’s left in his tank.

“My body feels great,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life right now, so hopefully that continues. My career is just getting started.”

Pro Football Focus last month put Burkhead at No. 9 among its “under-the-radar” free agents. Other publications have listed him as a potential bargain signee, with one possibility being Dallas looking for help behind Ezekiel Elliott.

Burkhead recently bought a house in the Dallas area. He starred at Plano High before running for 3,329 yards and 30 touchdowns at NU. He ranks No. 6 on the Huskers’ all-time rushing chart.

If he ends up leaving Cincinnati, Burkhead won’t be sure how to feel after building a host of relationships and friendships with teammates and staff. Before the Bengals slipped to 6-9-1 last season, he was part of teams that averaged 11 wins and made three AFC playoff appearances between 2013 and ’15.

“Even though I didn’t really get opportunities offensively until year four at the running back position, it was still just an unbelievable experience,” he said. “I haven’t wrapped my mind totally around it. I’ll know for sure if that comes up, but I do like Cincinnati, though.”

Burkhead right now has just tried to enjoy the first two months of his offseason. He was in Florida on Friday for the wedding of a former NU teammate, and the Team Jack Gala on Saturday night will include Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry and a host of current and former Huskers. Burkhead also is planning a Team Jack event April 1 at Plano High.

“So I haven’t thought about it too much,” he said.

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