Jan 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead (33) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts safeties Mike Adams (29) and LaRon Landry (30) in the 2014 AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
As is typical of reserve players, Rex Burkhead‘s year could’ve gone largely unnoticed. For the second year in a row, Burkhead spent the year on the roster, but was a borderline active roster player come gamedays; often he’d miss games when the other three running backs (Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, and Cedric Peerman) were healthy. Despite his fringe status, he has made the most of his opportunities and impacted the Bengals in a positive fashion. It’s because of this impact Rex Burkhead deserves a larger role when the 2015 season rolls around.
In 2013, Rex Burkhead was only able to get on the field for a single game. It was unsurprising considering the rookie running back was selected with a sixth-round selection. Yet, Burkhead was considered a steal in the sixth round and defied the odds by making the 53-man roster, an uncertain reality for many sixth-rounders.
This year, Rex Burkhead began making an impact on this team during the preseason with his work ethic. Giovani Bernard spoke about wanting to emulate Burkhead while offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had high praise for Burkhead.
"“I can always in the meetings point to something he’s doing that’s giving us a chance to have success. It’s every day. There’s not a day that goes by. And that’s what matters to me: that guys are playing hard, finishing and taking care of business. He does that, there’s no question about that.” When Bernard got hurt against the Colts in Week Seven, it caused him to miss a few games. This presented Burkhead with a set of auspicious circumstances. Burkhead only appeared in 33 offensive plays throughout the year, he made a few plays that really stood out."
But once the season kicked off, Burkhead again found himself as a borderline active roster player. In Week Seven, things changed when Giovani Bernard was banged up by the Colts. The injuries forced Bernard to miss a few games and inadvertently presented Burkhead with some auspicious circumstances.
Rex Burkhead was placed on the active roster in Weeks 9-11 (filling-in for Bernard). In Week Nine, Burkhead made a significant impact on special teams with a blocked punt.
Then in Week 11 against the Saints, Burkhead was able to make three catches for 36 yards. All three accounted for first downs including this impressive diving catch after he was tripped up.
As a runner, Rex Burkhead isn’t the fastest nor the most powerful back, but he’s always been praised for possessing good vision. Although it came when the game was well out of reach, Burkhead’s 10-yard touchdown run against the Browns was a great example of this vision.
Burkhead not only displayed great vision on the play, but also showed great patience when allowing his blockers to open holes and following them into the end zone. When you aren’t the fastest nor most powerful back, it’s these kinds of attributes that enable a player to be effective beyond his physical limitations.
Burkhead’s performance earned him a place on the active roster for the playoff game against the Colts. He had arguably his best game of the year that day despite the team’s disappointing loss.
On the first offensive play of the day, the Bengals handed the ball to Burkhead who promptly took the ball 23 yards down the field–he also had a four-yard catch on that drive.
On the second offensive drive of the game, the Bengals faced a third and four on the Colts 31-yard-line. Burkhead caught a pass seven yards down the field and then took the ball to the 5-yard-line.
The catch set up the Bengals first touchdown of the day. Burkhead later added a 4-yard catch. He finished the day with one carry for 23 yards and three catches 34 yards. This production was undeniably important, yet Burkhead didn’t stop there. He displayed great versatility by lining up in the backfield, as a receiver on multiple plays, and even as a tight end. In the Bengals’ biggest game of the year, Rex Burkhead shined bright.
This off-season may present Burkhead with some auspicious circumstances once again. The Bengals other reserve running back, and special teams captain, Cedric Peerman will be a free agent. He’ll be 29 next season and in his sixth NFL season. He has shown some ability within both the running and passing game, but hasn’t been given much opportunity over his five years with the Bengals. It’s possible Peerman is re-signed due to his special teams prowess, but the Bengals have several younger players to re-sign over the next couple of years and Peerman’s average salary is about double that of Burkhead’s rookie deal which has him signed until 2017.
Rex Burkhead has proven himself to be a quality leader for the Bengals despite his limited impact on the field. He’s seen by his coaches as a role model for his teammates as evidenced by Hue Jackson’s statement regarding his work ethic. Most importantly, when given an opportunity on the field, Burkhead has made a positive impact. His skill-set and penchant for the big play despite limited snaps likens him to once-upon-a-time fan favorite Brian Leonard. It’s hardly surprising considering how seriously Burkhead takes his preparation work.
"“I love the competition. I feel like it brings out the best in me and helps me improve as a player. So whenever my opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it because I’ve already been practicing at that level. This competition, it makes us all better. It makes the team better and that’s what wins you championships, is having that high level of competitiveness around you.”"
Come August, when the Bengals are deciding upon their roster, they’d do well to give Rex Burkhead a larger role on this team.