Rex Burkhead's expanding role for Bengals can help him have breakout year

CINCINNATI -- Knee-deep in the long march to training camp, we're taking a look this week at seven Cincinnati Bengals who could have breakout seasons in 2015.

Whether it's because of their young age, previous performance or other factors, these players haven't had a chance to become significant pieces of the Bengals' system -- until now. A couple ended up becoming regular contributors late last season, but they could become even bigger household names this fall. Let's start tracking a few reasons why.

After exploring Darqueze Dennard's promise for a breakout year on Monday, we focus next on:


Years in NFL: Two

Age: 24

When drafted: Sixth round (No. 190 overall), 2013

2014 stats: 9 rushes, 27 rushing yards, 7 catches, 49 receiving yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 5 special teams tackles

Why he's poised to break out: Simple. His coaches have been saying they want him to.

Since last season ended, Marvin Lewis and others on the Bengals' staff have lamented the way Burkhead was used during the first two years of his career. The bottom line: they just haven't used him enough. A versatile playmaker, in the limited time he has participated in the Bengals' offense, Burkhead has been both a runner and a receiver. It was during the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss to Indianapolis that Burkhead emerged as a legitimate receiving option. The day before, the Bengals found out A.J. Green wouldn't be able to participate because of continuing concussion symptoms, and tight end Jermaine Gresham decided not to play because of a back injury. With Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and James Wright already missing, the Bengals had significant holes at their pass-catching positions.

So Burkhead was called out of the backfield and moved into the slot. After taking a reverse for 23 yards on the game's opening play, he caught three passes for 34 yards.

Regularly this spring, Burkhead appeared in the slot. He looked impressive, too, running routes and catch passes with safeties and corners lined up against him. Two of the biggest challenges he has had in getting reps as a slot receiver involve learning the more complicated route trees receivers have compared to running backs, and discovering ways to put moves on the quicker safeties and cornerbacks who have covered him. As a running back, he was more regularly covered by linebackers on passes out of the backfield. His moves in those matchups required power. At receiver, they require more finesse.

Though he could get more opportunities to catch passes, still look for Burkhead to have chances as a runner, too. He hasn't completely abandoned running back. But with the likes of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill ahead of him, Burkhead probably won't see a significant jolt to his carries. Because of the backfield's numbers game, much of the increased production he's anticipating will have to come through the passing game. If the Bengals are true to their word about Burkhead, who turns 25 on Thursday, he will be more of a factor this season. The few extra touches won't make him a star, but they could make him an unique back-of-the-depth-chart weapon.