When the New England Patriots take on the Cincinnati Bengals this week, two members of their offense will return to their former stomping grounds: wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and running back Rex Burkhead both started their careers with the AFC North team, and now are back in the white road jerseys worn by the reigning Super Bowl champions. For both, it will be their first trip back to Paul Brown Stadium since they left the organization.
Sanu originally joined the Bengals in the third round of the 2012 draft and went on to appear in 57 regular season games and three playoff contests for the team. But even though he left Cincinnati as a free agent in 2016 to join the Atlanta Falcons — who went on to trade him to the Patriots earlier this season for a second-round draft selection — the 30-year-old still has regular contact with some of his former teammates as he told the Boston Globe this week.
“I still talk to guys — A.J. [Green]. The guys on defense. Shawn Williams. Darqueze [Dennard], all those guys. Carlos [Dunlap]. Andy [Dalton], obviously. I talk to those guys a lot,” Sanu said before pointing out that returning to Cincinnati will be, in his own words, cool. “It’ll be cool. Played them last year; be cool to play them this year in Cincinnati.”
Sanu’s connections to his former teammates extend beyond those still playing: the veteran wide receiver also still is in touch with defensive tackle Devon Still, who played alongside him between 2012 and 2014. Still announced his retirement from the NFL in December 2017, but Sanu honored him and his daughter Leah’s fight against cancer last week when wearing ‘Still Strong’ cleats as part of the NFL’s ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ initiative.
Burkhead, meanwhile, appears to be solely focused on the game at hand as he told reporters in the locker room: “Of course I’ve played there for four years, but I’ve been here for three years now,” he said. “I enjoy it here. I definitely had good memories there, but I’m a Patriot now. At the same time, the Bengals brought me in the league so I’ve got to be thankful for that — I learned a lot there. I’m just excited to be on this team now.”
The 29-year-old joined the Bengals as a sixth-round draft pick in 2013 and appeared in 42 regular season and a pair of postseason games for the team before leaving it as a free agent in 2017. Burkhead signed a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the Patriots and promptly developed into a core special teamer and valuable change-of-pace running back for the team — one that reached the Super Bowl twice since his arrival in Foxborough.
On Sunday, he and Sanu will try to take the next step towards another championship by beating the Bengals and staying ahead of the competition in the race for a first-round playoff bye in the AFC.