Very Deep Sleepers: Rex Burkhead (Bengals)
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I’ll start with an attention-getting/deranged lunatic lead statement, and then I will lay out my case as to why this could come true.
Rex Burkhead is a cross between Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker, some of the best attributes of both players all rolled into one. If given the opportunity, Burkhead could lead all NFL running backs in targets, receptions, and receiving yards…this season.
Theo Riddick and Danny Woodhead tied for the NFL lead among running backs in receptions last season (80) and were 1-2 in receiving yards, as well. It’s not like you need to be a future Hall of Fame talent to have a major impact as a receiver at the running back position in the new era of the passing game.
In reality, I don’t think Burkhead will lead NFL running backs in much of anything in 2016, but he may give you a glimpse. Allow me to pause on Burkhead for a moment, and wax poetic about the New England Patriots – and what they mean to this Burkhead theory.
My prophecy on Burkhead is one for the future…the near future. The vision may come true in 2017, when Burkhead hits free agency, as he is snapped up on the cheap by the New England Patriots as an unrestricted free agent, who no one will care about…at the time. I’m not just being one of ‘those guys’ trying to push every overlooked player onto New England – I really believe Burkhead is on a collision course for possible PPR stardom in 2017 heading to the Patriots, the team with a head coach who understands such ‘hidden things’ that seem beyond the understanding of the other NFL teams.
What the Patriots saw in Shane Vereen, and then exploited, was the beginning of a new ‘receiving running back’ revolution, beyond that of everyone in the NFL trying to find ‘their Darren Sproles.’ As with most things in the NFL, offensive styles are not radically changed until the Patriots ‘do it,’ and then everyone falls all over themselves trying to copycat it. Remember what happened in the league when the Patriots rolled out the Gronkowski-Hernandez tight end combination? The media and fans wailed and moaned for their teams to find their own tight end duo – coaches and personnel people, along with the football media, constantly talked about their tight end options as ‘Gronk-like’ or ‘Hernandez-like’ in their search to mimic Belichick.
After changing NFL offensive perceptions with their unique tight end duo, the Patriots then made using your running back as a quasi-wide receiver ‘cool.’ The running back as a deep threat receiver, whether lining up as a flanker or slipping out on a surprise wheel route, was a thing of beauty executed by Vereen and Tom Brady. The Patriots used Vereen in a variety of ways to confuse defenses and exploit mismatches.
…and then the Patriots just let Vereen walk away in free agency in 2015.
Because we trust all things Belichick, no one was really that nervous about the Pats finding a replacement for Vereen. We all figured Belichick would think of something. Fantasy analysts tried to guess ‘the winner’ in the 2015 preseason; James White? Travaris Cadet? Tyler Gaffney? The last thing I thought Belichick would (or could) do is take often-injured journeyman running back Dion Lewis (who had nearly as many catches as knee injuries in his first four years in the NFL) and change the game of football once again.
Dion Lewis became a confounding weapon used against opponents right out of the gates in 2015 – a guy that was lining up all over the field and running pass routes of all kinds. Lewis ran traditional screen passes and swing passes out of the backfield, but more heavily (than Vereen ever did) worked routes over the middle out of the backfield and lined up as a fourth or fifth wide receiver and ran wide receiver-like pass routes. Often, as was the plan, Lewis would draw a much slower linebacker in coverage, and he would just abuse the defender with faster feet and the exquisite timing between him and Brady.
When the league saw what the Pats were doing with Lewis, the copycatting increased in intensity. Instead of a few targets here and there, running backs like Duke Johnson, Theo Riddick and Charles Sims began to become quasi-wide receivers for their offenses.
Dion Lewis got hurt halfway into the season, and he never returned. It was OK, because backup James White jumped in and put up similar numbers. The combination of Lewis and White would have been second among all running backs in targets last year (104). Only ex-Patriots running back Danny Woodhead had more targets (106).
What does any of this have to do with Rex Burkhead, current player on the Cincinnati Bengals?
Over the past two preseasons, Rex Burkhead has caught my eye on tape. And you have to know that I am an NFL preseason tape-studying aficionado. I love the preseason more than the regular season. I live for finding hidden value lurking among all the lower tier, lesser-named players that often begin their NFL ascents by flashing in the preseason. After watching/breaking down a ton of preseason games the past few years, I would make this wild claim – you could argue that Rex Burkhead has the single best pair of receiving hands of any player classified as a running back in the NFL. I know it’s not that crazy of a claim, because the Bengals started working him as a slot wide receiver as well as a running back in the past two preseasons.
For this article, I went back through and re-watched every carry and target Burkhead had over the past two seasons. I have to tell you, at times…he’s borderline jaw-dropping as a catcher of the ball (for a running back). He can catch anything thrown near him. Some guys have ‘good hands,’ and then there’s a guy like Burkhead – he catches all the improbable passes thrown at him. He adeptly adjusts his body to grab passes thrown behind him. He digs out passes fired near his shoestrings. He can sky into the air to snatch balls thrown over his head. He makes normal passes look too easy. In the past two preseasons, Burkhead has seen a variety of unique targets as a receiver out of the backfield but also has seen work as a slot wide receiver a la Wes Welker…and has worked the same way, to a lesser degree/sparingly, in the regular season and playoffs. He is a talent hiding in plain sight of the entire Bengals’ organization. As a Dynasty GM, I’d look past his time with Cincinnati. I wouldn’t be shocked if Cincinnati cut him or traded him (for a bag of beans) in the 2016 preseason. Burkhead’s Fantasy future is with a team that could use him, an offense that covets what he brings to the table; a team he would be a perfect fit for. That team is the New England Patriots.
The problem for the Patriots with Dion Lewis is that he is very small and very frail/injury-prone. James White is also a tentative player with questionable ‘starter’ skills. Rex Burkhead is a ‘rock’ at 5′10″/215. He runs a mediocre 4.7+ 40-time, but he has terrific measurables beyond that – a high-end 6.85 three-cone time, a stellar-for-a-wide-receiver 39″ vertical, and he benched an impressive, fullback-like 21 reps at his NFL Combine. I could see Burkhead losing 5–10 pounds, improving his speed, and becoming an overall nightmare to deal with in the passing game out of the backfield for linebackers…a bigger, better, badder Dion Lewis.
It’s not like all Burkhead has to give to an offense are his uber-skills in the passing game. In his best season at Nebraska (2011), Burkhead ran for 1,357 yards and 15 TDs. He also caught five passes for TDs over his college career (impressive for a college RB, especially at Nebraska in 2009–12). He also threw three TD passes in college and returned punts on occasion. Burkhead is just ‘one of those guys’…a talent you can put to use.
If I advanced this same player theory 5+ years ago, no one cares about/values a running back whose primary gift is as a receiver. This article wouldn’t make much sense to the old NFL. Any conversation around him years ago would probably have revolved around moving him to defense or possibly trying to convert him to a fullback. However, in the very rapidly emerging NFL market of using the running back as a major pass-game weapon, Burkhead is a gem in hiding in a sudden ‘bull market’ looking for this high-end receiver-running back…emphasis on receiver. Not only does he have exquisite hands to fill this new, emerging role in the NFL, but he also has the build to take a beating while making all these catches in the open- field, which is an attribute many current receiver-first running backs cannot claim.
Cincinnati is probably going to waste Burkhead as a backup receiver and running back in 2016, never giving him a chance to start as a slot receiver, nor featuring him in the pass game over Gio Bernard. I would push Burkhead over Bernard in a heartbeat. This is no slam on Bernard, but Burkhead opens up the entire field. Bernard is more of a traditional screen and swing pass reliable option. I know the Bengals have no such desire to bump Gio. But do know this – if Bernard goes down, we should all move to DEFCON 5 on Burkhead for PPR purposes in 2016.
As with most hidden gems lurking in the NFL, Bill Belichick will usually find them. He may not have the same sixth sense finding them in the NFL Draft, but when he sees them in the NFL (preseason or regular season), he sees what no one else sees. If Belichick finds Burkhead in 2017 (or, I pray, in 2016) then a PPR superstar will be born.
If you think that last statement was maniacal, you probably would’ve thought the same if I’d told you Dion Lewis would be a PPR god at this same time last year. Rex Burkhead is at least twice the talent/prospect that Dion Lewis is.
There’s always the chance that the momentum of additional teams looking for ‘their Dion Lewis’ could have them reaching the same conclusion this offseason – and thus acquiring Burkhead on purpose. I’d rather it happen on the Patriots, as a Dynasty GM, but this is a nice fallback option.
My advice to Dynasty owners with deep rosters – go back and watch Burkhead’s work the last two seasons (it won’t take long), or watch what happens this upcoming preseason. If you see what I see, make a free investment now, or make note to grab him as a Dynasty ‘stash’ before the end of 2016 for his pending free agency. If I’m right, you will experience one of the greatest Fantasy ROI events of all time in about 12–18 months. If I am wrong, and no one gives him a chance, it cost almost nothing.