For the next seven days we're taking a look at Cincinnati Bengals who could be on the dreaded training camp roster bubble later this summer. These are players whom we think you should expect to see fighting for spots when the eventual 75-man preseason roster gets trimmed to the regular-season 53.
As permitted by league rules, the roster currently stands at 89.
We're not going in any particular order. After starting with Taylor Mays on Monday, then Brandon Tate on Tuesday, J.K. Schaffer on Wednesday, and Cobi Hamilton on Thursday, we turn next to running back Rex Burkhead:
Why he's on the bubble: Of all the positions on the Bengals' roster, the running back group likely has the highest percentage of players who could be considered on any current manifestations of the team's training camp bubble. Along with Burkhead the obvious other addition would be BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the veteran whose place on the roster appeared in doubt once Jeremy Hill was drafted last month. As you can imagine, we'll discuss Green-Ellis further on a later Bubble Watch post. As for Burkhead, like Schaffer and Hamilton, he comes into the season as a fringe player at his position. There are certainly qualities the Bengals like about him, but there are others that just don't place him all that high on the team's depth chart. Hill has the size, hands and speed coaches hope to exploit this year. Giovani Bernard has the elusiveness and big-play potential that's already made him a lock to handle the bulk of the backfield duties. Burkhead runs with a measure of speed and physicality, but he doesn't have the spark those two have. He also doesn't have the same measure of special-teams versatility as Cedric Peerman, another backup running back who returns kicks along with blocking on return teams.
What he has to do to get off the bubble: Like a few of the other players we've already broken down, Burkhead simply has to keep working hard. Arguably the most endearing quality Burkhead has is a work ethic that some of his teammates have told me they try hard to match. While coaches often are yelling the word "Finish!" to some of their other playmakers at the end of certain practice drills, there's never a need for them to do that with Burkhead. He's instead winding down a no-contact drill by carrying the ball another 60 or 70 yards in an effort to overemphasize the finish and hustle aspect coaches are preaching to others. When he's not doing that, he's flashing on a block or making another subtle attention-getting move. There's still value in having players who might not be the most talented at their position, but who are among the hardest working.
Odds he makes the team: 50/50. We haven't used "50/50" since Mays' Bubble Watch blurb, but it seems fitting to employ it here. Burkhead's ability, particularly when juxtaposed with the deep talent ahead of him, makes it tough to see him making the final 53-man roster. With James Wilder Jr. a practice squad possibility, too, the Bengals may end up with one too many running backs to keep Burkhead around. But again, his mere presence on the sidelines could be important. The way Burkhead plays sets a tone the Bengals like having on the team. Whether he knows it or not, Burkhead's example has had a far-reaching impact on his teammates. He's played a side role in aiding the blue-collar focus that was such a major part of Cincinnati's widely unexpected run of recent regular-season success. Again, teams are glad to have players on their teams like that simply to use them as examples for the rest to follow.