Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.
Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason.
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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."
It certainly didn't hurt.
Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process.
Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.
The Patriots must have taken notice.
They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster.
What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England.
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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis.
Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.
Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality.
On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor.
Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision.
Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter.
Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it.
Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup.
One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more.
Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times.
As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run.
On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.
In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did.
Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers.
Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter.
"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.
Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23.
"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."
However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well.
So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.
Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.