Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What will happen with Rex Burkhead?

By Paul Dehner Jr.
February 21, 2017

This week Bengals beat writers Jim Owczarski and Paul Dehner, Jr. break down five free agent questions surrounding the club as they head to the NFL Scouting Combine. The “legal tampering” window begins March 7 and the new league year begins at 4 p.m. on March 9.

Over the final quarter of the Bengals season, running back Rex Burkhead assumed an opportunity four years in the making when asked to fill in for an injured Giovani Bernard (ACL). His moment couldn’t have come soon enough as he prepared to enter free agency with almost no regular season game experience at the running back position.

He made the most of his opportunity. In fact, he rated as one of the most versatile and efficient running backs in football with his sample size. At the very least, he proved more effective than even the two backs that held the job before him, Bernard and Jeremy Hill.

Burkhead, a 2013 sixth-round pick out of Nebraska, carried 74 times for 4.65 yards per rush. He also caught 17 passes for 145 yards.

Meanwhile, Bernard and Hill both failed to cross 3.8 yards per carry this past season.

Burkhead not only hits the open market with a wave of momentum, he hopes to land an opportunity to finally play. If the Bengals can offer him a fair shot at playing time after proving his worth at the end of last season, striking a deal in Cincinnati shouldn’t be much of a challenge.

The question will come down to if Burkhead believes the opportunity will be given to him with the Bengals, a place where Hill and Bernard played ahead of him the entirety of their careers, or if he should look elsewhere for a greater opening to contribute as a central cog in an offense.

Between Hill’s inability to cross four yards per carry the last two seasons and Bernard coming off an ACL, the possibility opens for Burkhead to see an expanded role. Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese opined on the possibility that a deeper rotation including Burkhead should have been part of the 2016 plan, keeping the option in place for next year.

"Because of the way we put this together, it hasn’t included a third guy," Zampese said. "He certainly made a case for that. Maybe we were wrong. Evidence would suggest that at this point. He averaged four 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.”

You could argue given the offensive structure, Burkhead was a more snug fit anyway. Zampese leaned more toward the pass than any Bengals season since 2012. Leaning more on the arm of Andy Dalton would mean leaning on the skill set of Burkhead. Remember, he was used as a slot wideout in the playoffs against Indianapolis in 2014 and came up as a seven-on-seven receiver in Texas.

This past year Burkhead caught 17 of the 20 targets thrown his way, for 85 percent. Of the 63 running backs last year to catch at least 15 passes, Burkhead ranked third in catch percentage behind only Seattle’s C.J. Prosise (89.5 percent) and Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy (87.7).

Signing running backs to second contracts rarely play out as smart business in a league where the best years for most backs come at their cheapest rate. The top four backs in yards per game last year were all on their rookie contracts, as well as seven of the top 10.

Burkhead breaks the mold a bit, having almost no tread on his tires from lack of use when he turns 27 in July.

What also weighs into the equation would be a running back draft class loaded both at the top and in depth. Adding a cheaper, younger version of Burkhead in the middle rounds – where the Bengals will own four compensatory picks on top of their standard allotment – would be a reasonable fix. And a possibility exists the team makes a bold move for LSU star Leonard Fournette if available at No. 9 overall.

Fellow running back and special teams standout Cedric Peerman also enters free agency, but if the team allows him to find another club, they could fill the four-back room with Bernard, Hill, Burkhead and a draft pick, then let the group play it out.

The scenario would certainly sit well with the Bengals, but the question will be if that feels like enough opportunity for Burkhead.

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