Bengals call Rex Burkhead a running back, but keep using him as a slot receiver

CINCINNATI -- Two letters appear next to Rex Burkhead's name on all the Cincinnati Bengals' rosters, depth charts and organizational sheets: "RB."

Yes, those are his initials. But they also signify "running back," the position Burkhead has played since he was drafted three years ago, and the one his superiors contend remains his position.

"He's a running back," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, smiling.

Added head coach Marvin Lewis with his own grin: "He's not a wide receiver."

Although Burkhead still has gotten his share of snaps from the backfield as a true running back, he also has lined up often in this training camp at receiver. Specifically, he's lined up in the slot, where he has been consistently matched up with safeties and corners, and he caught passes after pulling away from them on various routes. With receiver Marvin Jones out the past four practices with a sore hamstring, Burkhead has shifted into a more regular role in the slot.

"I'm just filling in whatever way I can," Burkhead said. "If something does happen like that in the season, I can hopefully fill that void and not miss a beat with the offense."

Before Jones' absences, the lean receiver had been featured him as the No. 2 wide out opposite Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. With Jones and Green on the outside, Mohamed Sanu had been getting the bulk of slot receiver duties in base three-receiver schemes.

Cincinnati's offense relies on rotations throughout the receiver spots. Green, for example, will alternate at the boundary receiver positions and also might take occasional snaps from the slot.

Similarly, Burkhead will line up in the slot, on the outside, and regularly in the backfield as a third running back option.

"He is a running back," Jackson said. "A running back that plays all over the place."

Burkhead got a taste of playing slot receiver in January, when injuries so depleted the Bengals' receivers that he was called into action for the lone playoff game at Indianapolis. In addition to opening the game with a 23-yard reverse, he caught three passes for 34 yards. He was one of the few highlights in an otherwise ugly game for Cincinnati.

Burkhead got his first taste of playing receiver in 7-on-7 tournaments as a teenager growing up in Texas. It was while being part of those teams that he first learned how to use his quickness and strength to separate from defenders. During this training camp, the former Nebraska standout has demonstrated a sound ability of doing just that.

"I've always kind of been all-purpose," Burkhead said. "A lot of slot guys are a lot smaller than me. They're not 215 pounds, so just going up against the nickel corners and other guys like that, I want to use [my size] to my advantage."

Jackson believes Burkhead can be a matchup problem as a slot receiver if he continues to hone his opportunities at the position.

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," Jackson said. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented that way. Again, he's still growing and learning.

"But like I said ... he's a running back."