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Rex Burkhead among top 10 free agent running backs

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Despite being the Bengals’ third or fourth string running back for most of his NFL career, Burkhead is considered among the top 10 running back set to hit free agency.

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The Bengals currently have a dilemma at running back that no one would have seen coming two years ago. After the 2014 NFL season, the Bengals looked set at the running back position with Jeremy Hill playing out of his mind, Giovani Bernard providing a solid complementary role, and a combination of Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead contributing as rotational backups and special teams players. However, now, the Bengals are in the position of having to think about re-tooling their running back position and potentially jumping through hoops to keep Burkhead around.

For the longest time, Burkhead seemed like the odd-man out at the running back position, which has carried four players since the Bengals selected him in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Ultimately, keeping Burkhead around on the roster worked out as the Bengals needed him to help out during the 2016 season when Bernard tore his ACL and Hill experienced injury issues all season. In the final game of the season against the Ravens, Burkhead absolutely went off (27 carries: 119 yards, two touchdowns) against one of the NFL’s best rushing defenses (ranked No. 2 before Week 17). As a result, the NFL took notice of Burkhead’s clearly visible talent and ability to produce. That’s prompted Pro Football Focus to rank him on their list of top 10 running backs set to hit free agency.

8. Rex Burkhead, Cincinnati Bengals (74.5)

Burkhead has received a very limited number of snaps over his three-year NFL career, but he enjoyed his most expanded role last season, and he thrived within it. Burkhead averaged 3.03 yards after contact per attempt in 2016, which ranked 12th among all RBs receiving at least 50 carries, forcing 15 missed tackles on 91 total touches.

Right now, the hope among many Bengals fans is that the team will realize what a gem they have in Burkhead and make the effort to re-sign him while drastically increasing his role in the process. That is the only way the Bengals are going to retain him. The Bengals seem to still be committed to Hill, despite his struggles, but they don’t want to pass up the opportunity they have with Burkhead.

If the Bengals are able to re-sign Burkhead, they will likely need to start committing to him more than they are to Hill. Despite his recent ACL injury, Bernard is a very effective offensive weapon, both in the passing and rushing game, so his role probably will not change much even if Burkhead returns. That’s pending his full return, which is reportedly going very well. If Bernard is healthy and Burkhead returns, Hill will likely go from being the starting running back to the third string option.

It could be a difficult decision for the Bengals to make in considering Burkhead’s return. As previously mentioned, they want to work with Hill to fix his issues, rather than giving up on him after a couple of poor seasons. The team could potentially find a high-quality running back in the draft. But, Burkhead has proven he’s capable of playing at a high level and he knows the Bengals’ system. At 26-years-old, he still has plenty of room to improve to an even higher level. Burkhead is a year older than Hill, but there is no doubt that he currently gives the Bengals more of a chance to win than the former LSU star. It would be silly for the Bengals to waste that opportunity if the team can re-sign him to a deal that is fair for both parties. But, considering he’s on PFF’s list of the 10 best running backs set to be available in free agency, expect Burkhead to receive outside interest if he hits the market on March 9.