The Bengals tend to specialize in unlikely success stories, as evidenced by undrafted free agents like Vontaze Burfict and Alex Erickson or late draft picks like Marvin Jones or George Iloka. When you get right down to it, these are some of the most exciting players to watch as they develop from a position where they were supposed to fizzle out like almost everyone else in their position. But, for whatever reason, these guys made something work. One player who has managed to defy incredible odds to become an impact player recently is Rex Burkhead, who absolutely exploded for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, as well as 25 yards on two catches in Week 17 in his first NFL start.
“I'm confident in my skills, I knew what I can do, (I) just needed an opportunity,” Burkhead told C. Trent Rosecrans of Cincinnati.com after Sunday’s game. “For me, it came year four into the NFL, so I've been patiently waiting for it and just did my best out there when I got the chance.”
Burkhead was the 190th pick in the 2013 NFL draft (sixth round). His expectations coming to the team were about what you would expected out of any sixth round running back on a crowded roster, especially when the Bengals drafted a running back in the second round, too. Best case scenario, he would stick around with the team for a few years and put together a few good plays like Bernard Scott, but there was also the strong possibility that he would fizzle out in training camp with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the starter and Cedric Peerman being established and successful on special teams.
But, Burkhead didn’t shrink in the face of adversity. He did enough to convince the Bengals to carry four running backs on the roster and reaffirmed it the following preseason despite the Bengals drafting Jeremy Hill to replace Green-Ellis. During the 2014 season he established himself as a solid wild card option, recording nine carries for 27 yards and a touchdown, as well as seven catches for 49 yards. His rushing numbers were down in 2015 to almost nothing, but he did contribute 10 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown as a backfield wild card receiver.
He made the team again in 2016, recording his aforementioned first start in the very last game. He recorded 74 carries for 344 yards and two touchdowns this year, in addition to 17 catches for 145 yards. Burkhead’s entire career to this point has been about creating opportunity whether or not there actually appears to be any available, which is exactly the kind of intangible quality you want in a professional football player.
“He's an excellent ballplayer. He's a consummate professional,” Ryan Hewitt told the Enquirer. “He shows up and does what he's asked to do. It's just a matter of time with guys like him. Just give him opportunities and he's going to make plays.”
That combined with his impressive numbers in his few opportunities mean that he will receive plenty of attention when he becomes a free agent in the 2017 offseason. He may have established himself as a solid enough player whom the Bengals will want to re-sign with an increased role, but it’s hard to say exactly what the Bengals will do.
“I love it here in Cincinnati, I hope I can stay here,” Burkhead said. "So we'll just have to see what happens. It's too early to tell. I haven't really thought too much about it or seen much into it, but I like it here. I love my teammates, love the coaches. We'll just have to see what happens.”
But in reality, would Burkhead stay in Cincinnati if he’s not going to be given a chance to start? And will the Bengals actually allow Burkhead to move ahead on the depth chart? Those hoping to see Burkhead return in 2017 will be happy to remember the Bengals typically prefer re-signing their own players opposed to bringing in new players. When asked, Marvin Lewis was his typical self and didn’t make any promises that Burkhead will be back. But, he did seem to suggest that the Bengals definitely want to re-sign him if possible.
“There is no question, Lewis said. “We always like our guys (in free agency).”
Not many people expected Burkhead to have a chance to be one of the Bengals’ top running backs when he was taken in the sixth round of the draft, but he has slowly convinced more and more people of his abilities since then. His teammates, in particular, have been absolutely raving about him.
“He proved today, man, he can run the football. I’d take him as a No. 1 any day of the week,” Andrew Whitworth told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “I don’t think there’s too many teams where he wouldn’t fit. He runs the ball well. He’s got great agility. He’s got eyes, he’s got it all. The whole team has wanted him to get his opportunity and see what he does. Especially the defensive players because they know what Rex used to do to them. He’s a talented kid.”
Hewitt said more to that effect, too.
“He’s a damn good player,” Hewitt said. “He showed that today. He’s reliable and tough and hits it up in there and does what he’s supposed to do. I like Rex as a teammate and person. He’s a good dude.”
In fact, his performance last week was so impressive that he was up for the FedEx Ground player of the week.
Vote for the @FedEx Ground Player of the Week!— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2017
Tweet player's name + #AirAndGround:
Burkhead, Grant or Crowell? pic.twitter.com/4xdYNdlAKz
Unfortunately, Crowell won the award.
For the Bengals and their fans, the amount of buzz Burkhead generated this week is likely to force the rest of the NFL to take notice to his upcoming free agent status.
“He's a free man and I'm sure teams are going to turn that film on and there are going to be a lot of teams that are going to be real interested in Rex Burkhead,” Whitworth said.
On that note, Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed admiration for Burkhead’s talent after the game. “Rex Burkhead is a really good player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s really special”
We already know the Ravens’ running situation doesn’t look great these days. They are using a combination of Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon, and Javorius Allen to supplement their ground presence. It resulted in the NFL’s fifth worst rushing attack this year (1,463 yards). A solid player like Burkhead might be very attractive to the Ravens, or another team in their position.
Hopefully the Bengals can retain Burkhead for 2017 and beyond, but they may have significant competition from other teams. And to get him back, the Bengals will likely need to promise him more playing time than he’s seen so far in his young NFL career.