Crowded backfield makes Bengals' Rex Burkhead an option at slot receiver

CINCINNATI -- Make no mistake, Rex Burkhead is a running back.

But the Cincinnati Bengals, in a quest to take advantage of Burkhead's catching ability and the mismatches he can present, have already begun expanding the reserve playmaker's role to occasionally include using him at receiver.

While Burkhead has had his share of carries out of the backfield during organized team activities the last two weeks, he also has been getting lined up in the slot and out wide.

One of the more head-turning plays during Tuesday's open OTA was a pass Burkhead caught from quarterback AJ McCarron. As McCarron scanned his progressions from the left side of the field to the right, he saw Burkhead flash underneath coming out of a drag. When McCarron dumped off the pass, Burkhead finished the play by running into the end zone.

Get used to seeing that. If offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has his way, Burkhead will be catching many passes from off the line of scrimmage this season.

"You have a talented player on your team, you see if you can find a way to get him involved," Jackson said. "He can do a little bit of everything. He can run the ball, too. He can catch, protect. He's one of the better players on our team so we will see what we can do with him."

A crowded backfield underscores the Bengals' need for finding alternative ways for getting the ball in Burkhead's hands. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are slated to take the bulk of snaps at running back. Recently re-signed special teams standout Cedric Peerman also factors into the Bengals' backfield plans, albeit in a dramatically smaller role. Then there's the trio of James Wilder Jr., Mark Weisman and Terrell Watson, likely competing for the final running back job. Each undrafted free agent are power, change-of-pace runners.

The receiver unit is similarly stuffed, with 10 players vying for an expected six spots. So can Jackson really find opportunities for Burkhead?

"We'll find a way," Jackson said. "I promise you that."

Burkhead was approached by Bengals coaches halfway through last season about possibly playing out of the slot. Late in the year he even practiced from the position as part of the scout team.

"It was like if we're playing someone like Denver that had a Wes Welker-type player," Burkhead said.

When Cincinnati hosted Denver in a Week 15 Monday night game, Welker was limited to just four catches for 30 yards.

After seeing how well he helped prepare the defense, the Bengals approached Burkhead about playing out of the slot in a game. With five of their top pass-catchers out for the wild-card round playoff game at Indianapolis, they needed an extra receiver.

On the very first play, Burkhead ran an end around from the slot for 23 yards. By the end of the loss, he added three catches for 34 yards to his stat line.

"He did a good job, but it was kind of unfair to put him in that situation," Jackson said.

This year, the Bengals are vowing to have Burkhead ready for any opportunities he'll get as a receiver. He has spent this offseason splitting his time with the running backs and receivers. He's also worked closely with the quarterbacks to understand route terminology, he's developed hand moves to use against slot corners off the line and hes's more closely studied defensive coverages.

"I have a strong passion for the game of football and I love doing new things," Burkhead said. "This is something that I've never done before. It's cool. It's a learning process."