NFL Nation: Rex Burkhead

CINCINNATI -- Many of the plays Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson cued on the projection screen during unit meetings back in May and June ended with one player receiving a compliment: running back Rex Burkhead.

"That joker," fellow back Giovani Bernard said, "he's a good player."

Bernard apparently considers Burkhead to be so good, Bernard has made it his mission to copy one aspect of Burkhead's game in particular. That's right, Cincinnati's do-everything starting running back who was in the running for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award last season wants to emulate the backup who might not even make the team this training camp.

"It's just his effort," Bernard said. "You can't teach that. That's something you kind of have to have in yourself."

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRunning back Rex Burkhead has the type of attitude Bengals coaches love to see.
Routinely in practices you will see Burkhead finish runs or catches 30, 40, even 50 yards beyond where the whistle blew and the play ended. That is the effort Bernard has been slightly envious of. It is the same effort Jackson has been quick to point out when he re-watches practice film, and it is the effort other coaches referenced when they brought up the mantra of the minicamp and organized team activity portion of the offseason: "finish."

Back in June when organized team activities were winding down, receivers coach James Urban told ESPN.com just how much "finishing" had been stressed as the team started implementing Jackson's new offensive scheme.

"There was a lot of talk about finish," Urban said. "Talking about doing things down the field. Most of these guys have been with me, been with us, for the last four years or so. So they know what to expect, and we've done great things. So how do you get their attention? We get their attention by overemphasizing finishing, overemphasizing getting off the ball and getting out of the huddle and getting set."

Jackson said Burkhead was a great example of that.

"I can always in the meetings point to something he's doing that's giving us a chance to have success," Jackson said. "It's every day. There's not a day that goes by. And that's what matters to me: that guys are playing hard, finishing and taking care of business. He does that, there's no question about that."

There is also no question that as he enters his second season, Burkhead finds himself mired in one of the more intriguing position battles of the Bengals' training camp which begins Thursday. He's fighting for the team's third or fourth running back spot with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, James Wilder Jr. and Nikita Whitlock. The universal belief is that the Bengals likely will end up using Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill as their top two running backs, and that Peerman's more expansive special teams background and experience makes him an ideal candidate for the No. 3 spot. That would mean Burkhead and Green-Ellis will be dueling for the other roster spot as Wilder and Whitlock likely duke it out for a possible practice-squad job.

Burkhead has played the various scenarios in his head. He has a strong understanding of what is at stake for him right now. He knows he's not the fastest back on the team, and he knows he might not be the most powerful. But he still believes he has what it takes to stick with the club.

"I love the competition," Burkhead said. "I feel like it brings out the best in me and helps me improve as a player. So whenever my opportunity comes, I'll be ready for it because I've already been practicing at that level. This competition, it makes us all better. It makes the team better and that's what wins you championships, is having that high level of competitiveness around you."

Burkhead didn't contribute statistically to the Bengals' division championship last season. Declared inactive for all but one game, he was primarily a practice body. But he was a practice body that still commanded attention.

"This game, it's tough. It's tough to win, it's tough to score. It comes down to inches," Burkhead said. "That's what finishing plays is. Hopefully I can set that example, and if I can help someone do that, too, that's what I'm going to do."

So far, he's at least rubbed off on Bernard.

"It's effort like that that Coach Hue really sees and that he wants the whole offense to follow," Bernard said.

Burkhead, 24, wasn't the only one Jackson singled out regularly in his practice-film review sessions with the offense. Veterans like 32-year-old Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth showcased some of what Jackson has been pleading for since he took over as offensive coordinator in January.

Bernard said Jackson showed a couple of times where Whitworth was running downfield on routine practice plays to block for receivers.

"If all the linemen could do that, if all the running backs could do that, if all the receivers could do that, the quarterbacks could do that, that'll show and it'll prove to everybody how much better we really are," Bernard said.

As camp opens, stay on the lookout for how well effort translates to roster spots and offensive identity.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice is only 26, but he has taken a lot of hits. Although he put together a fantastic season, as usual, in 2012, he looked worn down late in the year and during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He has four straight regular seasons with more than 250 carries, and has caught at least 61 passes in each of those seasons. Even though he is still extremely potent, Baltimore might be wise to deflect a few more early down carries toward Bernard Pierce to extend Rice’s effectiveness. Pierce isn’t close to the receiver Rice is, and is still learning pass protection. However, he was very impressive late in the season, and you could argue he was running more effectively than Rice in the postseason. A bigger back than Rice, Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and could make a big impact in games in which Baltimore has the lead. Bobby Rainey enters his second season as well. He is a shorter back with a thick build, good balance and good feet. Expect him to take a step forward in his second season, but he helps the Ravens mostly on special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis will open training camp as the Bengals’ top running back. But don’t expect him to keep that distinction for long, as Giovani Bernard is sure to pass him. Green-Ellis gets what is blocked, has some power to drag tacklers, and is very reliable with his ball security. What you see is what you get with Green Ellis -- and it isn’t good enough. Bernard is an exciting prospect with loads of big-play ability. He can run inside with quick feet and more power than you might suspect, but also is very dangerous on the perimeter with his long speed and elusiveness in the open field. Green-Ellis will surely be superior in pass protection than Bernard to start the season, but Bernard is far more dangerous as a receiving option. Cincinnati also brought back Bernard Scott before the draft, but with the selection of Bernard, Scott’s roster spot is far from certain. The Bengals also drafted Rex Burkhead, who does everything well and is an underrated prospect overall. In time, I expect Burkhead to be a fine complement to Bernard as Cincinnati’s second running back.

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson battled numerous injuries during his rookie campaign, and that is the only concern I have about this 21-year-old. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has an outstanding history of utilizing a true feature back, and Richardson fits that mold with his rare blend of vision, power, lateral agility and speed to go along with excellent receiving skills. There isn’t much on Cleveland’s depth chart behind Richardson, so maybe the Browns will keep their eyes out for a veteran who gets released. For now, Montario Hardesty is No. 2. Injuries have been a big problem for him, but he does have a fair amount of ability. Also in the mix are Dion Lewis, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Jackson is bigger and runs with much more power than Lewis, but isn’t as quick. Both do their best work on third down, while Ogbonnaya is a big runner with some power, but he lacks any particular skill to wow you. A scat back with big-play ability would be a welcomed addition here.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers used this year’s second-round pick on Le'Veon Bell, as they felt that their running backs from 2012 were simply not getting the job done. Bell is very young, has good size and is quite established in the passing game, which is something Pittsburgh wasn’t getting from Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer. Redman and Dwyer are similar players. They both have good size and initiate contact. They get what is blocked, but not much more and lack dynamic qualities. They are backups in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers drafted Chris Rainey to help as a returner and add a running back/wide receiver hybrid to their offense. Rainey didn’t work out, but Pittsburgh signed LaRod Stephens-Howling this offseason for the same reasons. Baron Batch is also in the equation. His most notable contributions come on special teams, but he is a serviceable runner, receiver and blocker. The Steelers were in talks with Ahmad Bradshaw before the draft. With the selection of Bell, you would think that ship had sailed, but you never know. Bradshaw will end up somewhere this season. It is also likely that either Redman or Dwyer is gone before the season.
A quick recap of what the teams in the division did in the final two rounds ...

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead (sixth round) is smart, competitive and versatile (can line up in wildcat). There are questions about durability considering his injury history. ... Arkansas WR Cobi Hamilton (sixth round) is a big possession receiver and strong blocker. He has to prove he can get separation. ... Ohio State OT Reid Fragel (seventh round) moved from tight end to the offensive line last year, so he needs to work on his technique. He plays with an edge. ... South Carolina C T.J. Johnson (seventh round) uses his size well in the run game but looks heavy-footed in pass protection.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Yes, the Browns did actually draft some players on Day 3. Notre Dame S Jamoris Slaughter (sixth round) is about 90 percent recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon, which caused him to fall from being a third-round prospect. He is known as a leader with good football IQ. ... East Central Oklahoma DE Armonty Bryant (seventh round) is a character risk after being arrested for selling marijuana to undercover police. On the field, he finished with a school-record 26.5 sacks. ... Chadron State guard Garrett Gilkey (seventh round) is a Division II tackle who will move to guard. He's added 70 pounds since high school.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Notre Dame DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (sixth round) tore his ACL in the BCS championship game and may sit out this season. He's a blue-collar prospect who has had trouble staying healthy. ... Colorado State-Pueblo guard Ryan Jensen (sixth round) is a small-school four-year starter at tackle who will move inside in the NFL. He plays with a mean streak. ... Elon WR Aaron Mellette (seventh round) has good size (6-feet-2) and doesn't shy away from contact. He was outclassed against big-school defenders at the Senior Bowl. ... California CB Marc Anthony (seventh round) is a physical press corner who doesn't have the closing speed to match up with faster receivers.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Penn State's Justin Brown (sixth round) is the second wide receiver drafted by the Steelers this week. Brown brings size (6-3) but not game-breaking speed. ... Florida State ILB Vince Williams (sixth round) is a two-down player who can stop the run. He will provide depth because the Steelers don't expect Sean Spence (knee injury) to play this season. ... Samford DT Nicholas Williams (seventh round) is a raw prospect who is a former basketball standout. He has upside as a pass-rusher.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider