Rex Burkhead is not your typical third string running back. Against most predictions, his talent and ability to find unique ways to contribute have given the Bengals plenty of reason to keep him on their roster since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. During the first two years of his career, it seemed like there was no way he would be able to convince the Bengals to keep him around, but every year he found an invaluable niche.
However, now it is time to make a bigger decision on his future with the team. Previously, the question was simply whether or not the Bengals had room for him on the roster. Now, he is eligible for a contract extension and will require significantly more money than he has been making. For most third/fourth string running backs, it would be a no-brainer to cut ties. But, Burkhead’s incredible performance in his improbable lone start in addition to his play during the second half of the season and the Bengals’ notable problems in the running game make you think the Bengals might want to consider paying and playing him like a starting running back. If they don’t, some other team likely will. So, the Bengals will need to make absolutely sure they make the right decision with him, regardless of what it is.
42 games played, 1 game started: 87 rushes for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns, 34 receptions for 288 yards and 1 touchdown
2016 season stats
16 games played, 1 game started: 74 rushes for 344 yards and 2 touchdowns, 17 receptions for 145 yards and 1 touchdown
Case against re-signing Burkhead
With Burkhead’s very recent emergence, there is a good chance that some other team will pay him good money on the open market to be their new starting running back. Not every team will feel that way, but it only takes one. Given the key free agent contracts the Bengals have to deal with this year and Burkhead being consistently considered the third or fourth string running back through most of his career with the Bengals, it would stand to reason they can’t afford to invest that much in him. And, a rookie could come in and contribute right away at a minimal contract value.
Look at the Bengals’ depth chart. Sure, Jeremy Hill has struggled recently, but that doesn’t mean the Bengals should give up on a guy who has flashed as much potential as he has before his rookie contract is even up. They also have Giovani Bernard, who has been a steady contributor as both a runner and a pass catcher in the backfield. Cedric Peerman rounds out the group as a much less electrifying back than Burkhead. But, as the special teams captain, his value to the team goes far beyond his contributions at his primary position. Given the Bengals’ ability to draft an instant-impact running back and the backs already on the roster, it’s very possibly in the team’s best interest to move on from Burkhead, especially considering the kind of money he is bound to attract compared to rookie options.
Argument for re-signing Burkhead
Burkhead is the future. It has been a long time since Hill was reliable. Yes, it would be very strange to see the Bengals give up on him after only three years, one of which was absolutely astounding. But, the Bengals have an opportunity to develop a guy like Burkhead who has been hiding in plain sight for years.
For example, consider Burkhead’s performance in 2016. Whenever the Bengals featured him on a play as a rotational back, he would make something interesting happen. Unfortunately, he was too far down on the depth chart that he never had a chance to truly showcase his talent until Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens.
An injured Bernard and Hill forced the Bengals to start Burkhead against one of the NFL’s best defenses against the run (ranked No. 2 in the NFL after Week 16). No one would have blamed him for putting up a below average game in his very first start, going up against such a stout defense. But, he seized the opportunity and put up 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in addition to 25 yards on two catches. It was one of the best performances from a running back this season for the Bengals and potentially the perfect excuse to give him a large extension, relegating Hill to a previously inconceivable third string spot.
Priority to re-sign: Medium to high