Which free agents should Chargers target? RB edition
By Matt Pagels
1. Rex Burkhead (UFA): It’s time to replace one head with another. Danny Woodhead is an unrestricted free agent, but he’s 32 years old and coming off ACL surgery; Rex Burkhead is an unrestricted free agent, too, but he’s 26 years old and played in back-to-back 16-game seasons.
Granted the latter has seen way less action than the former.
Burkhead, a 2013 sixth-round pick out of Nebraska, is overlooked as a Cincinnati Bengal. He’s a gem who has been hiding behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Burkhead finished the 2016 season with 74 carries for 344 yards and two touchdowns, all career-highs. A good portion of those numbers came from his first career start in Week 17, where he tore apart the Ravens’ fifth-ranked run defense, rushing 27 times for 119 yards and two TDs. Aside from the season finale, his 4.6 yards per carry last season stands out.
According to Pro Fooball Focus, Burkhead is one of the more underrated free agents in 2017.
Burkhead is an intriguing free agent this offseason, as he shows good ability to make defenders miss, with an elusive rating of 49.9 (albeit from a limited sample size). Burkhead has good vision and burst, with very little wear and tear with just 89 career carries. – PFF’s John Kosko
The ability to make defenders miss in the open field is already a strong sell. PFF ranks Burkhead as the No. 9 free-agent running back, too, just above Woodhead, who is known for that same ability. Despite the small sample size, Burkhead has shown that he is a playmaker with good burst who averaged 3.03 yards after contact per attempt last season, which ranked 12th among all RBs receiving at least 50 carries, per PFF.
Why sign him: The Chargers need a third-down specialist who can bail out QB Philip Rivers, so sign me up for a younger and more durable Woodhead.
Overall, Burkhead is still an experienced player who will be very valuable in this offense (see Woodhead’s 2015 season when he tied for the most receptions by a RB). You can expand your playbook with a player like Burkhead. Like Woodhead, Burkhead can run between the tackles or bounce outside, pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield (caught 85 percent of passes last season). Not only that, but he can line up in the slot as a receiver. Unlike Woodhead, Burkhead is 5-foot-10, 215 pounds and still has the quickness AND size to beat nickel corners.
Bengals fans are high on this guy, but with Hill and Bernard already on the Bengals roster, I see Burkhead coming into free agency looking for more playing time than actually scoring a huge contract. He has been in the league for four seasons and didn’t really contribute until last season, but if he was utilized I guarantee he’d be talked about more. Lynn, who was the Bills’ running backs coach and offensive coordinator, took two former late-round picks in Karlos Williams (nine total touchdowns in 2015) and Mike Gillislee (nine total touchdowns and a league-high 5.7 yards per carry in 2016), who would be my other choice but will likely be given a second-round tender, and turned them into above-average running backs.
I can see him doing the same with Burkhead.
The money: As for contract stipulations, a comparable offer would be to that of Jets versatile RB Bilal Powell, who signed a three-year, $11.25 million extension in 2016. They are both young, but unlike Burkhead, Powell came into his deal with more production; the Chargers would be banking on Burkhead’s upside and game-changing potential. Woodhead, who was 30 at the time, got a two-year, $5.5 million extension with the Chargers in 2015, and that was for a veteran who’s elite at doing his job.
Contract: Three-year, $8-9 million deal ($2.5-3M per year)