On paper, the result of the Jan. 1 regular-season finale held little weight for the Cincinnati Bengals. Standing third in AFC North with a record of 5-9, neither Cincinnati, nor their division rival, the 8-7 Baltimore Ravens, would be playing for a postseason berth that afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
But the game wasn’t without significance. For running back Rex Burkhead, it was an audition.
The 2013 sixth-round pick out of Nebraska had garnered just 30 offensive touches through his first three NFL seasons. He’d handled just six carries and two catches through the Bengals’ first 10 games of the 2016 campaign as well.
Although through the next five, with change-of-pace back Gio Bernard on injured reserve, Burkhead began to see an uptick beyond special teams.
Burkhead tallied 186 yards rushing to go with 96 yards over that five-game sample size. And it was a sample size that’d only grow as the Bengals ruled out lead back Jeremy Hill for Week 17 against Baltimore.
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Burkhead was thrust into the biggest workload of his NFL career during that 1 p.m. kickoff. His opening slice from shotgun, which picked up 17 yards through a sea of Ravens defenders, signaled the start of it.
Quarterback Andy Dalton delivered Burkhead 27 handoffs and two passes by the time it was all over, and the byproduct was 144 yards of offense, a pair of touchdowns, along with a 27-10 Cincinnati victory.
“Very satisfying, especially to end the year this way,” Burkhead told reporters in the locker room following his first 100-yard showing. “Final game of the season, and I guess going into free agency as well, so it’s huge. Hopefully take this momentum into next year.”
Burkhead had two scores on his NFL resume prior to doubling that total on five-yard plunges versus Baltimore. His previous career-best in rushing yards stood at 45.
“He’s continued to do what I think everybody expected Rex [to do] with every opportunity he gets,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of Burkhead in his postgame press conference. “He did a really good job today. I thought he did an excellent job of running the football. He was decisive and ran the ball downhill and that’s what we are looking for. He stayed true to the plan all day. That was great.”
The finale would end up being the unrestricted free agent’s final game as a Bengal – even though the door was left open by Lewis.
“There’s no question. We always like our guys,” Lewis said of the possibility of Burkhead returning. “[Burkhead’s] name is really hard work, the epitome of hard work and what he does all the time and the professional he is.”
On a backfield market headlined by the likes of Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Latavius Murray and even LeGarrette Blount, Burkhead appeared to be lower-level name.
Five days into the 2017 league year, those appearances proved deceiving.
As others continued to test the free-agent depths, Burkhead inked a one-year pact worth up to $3.15 million with the New England Patriots.
The parameters of the contract brought pause. Given that the deal includes a $1.1 million signing bonus and $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses – and given that the Patriots haven’t historically put a premium on the running back position – there was reason to be surprised.
But there’s also reason to think a high-profile role is in place for the relative unknown.
While James White and Dion Lewis are entering the last year of their Patriots deals, Blount’s future as an unrestricted free agent is unclear and the same is true of core special-teamer Brandon Bolden. Perhaps one of whom, if not both, will be back in Foxborough. Perhaps neither will.
Much remains to be seen. That goes for Burkhead, too.
New England had seen what Burkhead was able to do on special teams during his tenure with the Bengals; he ran back six kickoffs for 113 yards and registered 13 tackles last season alone. The organization also saw what the 26-year-old could provide in glimpses as a sub back; he proved serviceable as a both a pass-catcher and pass-protector despite playing only 22 percent of the offensive snaps in 2016. But through his 56 snaps against the Ravens, Burkhead showed what he could do as a full-time ball-carrier, both between the tackles and outside of them.
And while that wasn’t likely the be-all or end-all in the Patriots’ evaluation, it certainly played a part in the ultimate outcome.