Cincinnati Bengals: Analyzing the running back position
Breaking down the running backs on the Cincinnati Bengals roster heading into the 2017 season.
The combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard has been a steady one-two punch for the Cincinnati Bengals for years now, but additions around them make this an interesting group to watch in 2017.
Subsequently, they’re the next stop on this offseason series that looks at each position group individually. The Bengals brought in talent through the draft and undrafted free agency. So what do we make of it?
We started the series looking at the Cincinnati quarterbacks. Now, I continue this series with the guys lining up behind the QB: the runners. Here are the backs on the Bengals roster currently:
- Jeremy Hill (222 rushes, 839 rushing yards, 9 rushing TDs; 27 targets, 21 receptions, 174 receiving yards)
- Giovani Bernard (91 rushes, 337 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs; 51 targets, 39 receptions, 336 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD, 1 fumble lost)
- *Joe Mixon (N/A)
- Ryan Hewitt (3 targets, 2 receptions, 13 receiving yards)
- Cedric Peerman (6 rushes, 15 rushing yards)
- Tra Carson (N/A)
- Jarveon Williams (N/A)
- Stanley Williams (N/A)
- Darrin Laufasa (N/A)
* = expected starter | 2016 statistics in parentheses
Since the team drafted Hill in 2014, they’ve had one of the face-value ideals of a dual-threat running game. Hill has acted as the power up the middle, a great complement to the receiving ability and open-space talents of Bernard. While it makes excellent sense on paper however, the actual on-field impact has been somewhat varied.
Both Hill and Bernard seem to put up quality numbers in their roles, but looking deeper points to that often being more of a result from quantity of chances than strong performances by them.
2014 was a great start for the grouping, the embodiment of the high-level one-two punch hopes for the two. Hill was eighth in the league in rushing yardage (1,124). Bernard came in at 23rd (680) while adding a decent chunk of receiving yardage as well (349, good for 13th among running backs) in just 13 games. Behind these efforts, the Bengals racked up the sixth-best rushing yardage in the NFL on the 12th-best yards per rush average.
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The performance didn’t stack up nearly as well for either of the past two years.
In 2015, Bernard held up his end pretty much the same way with 730 rushing yards (23rd) and 472 receiving yards (seventh among RBs). But Hill dropped off, falling down to 18th in rushing yardage (794). This led to the team falling to 13th in rushing yardage and 23rd in yards per rush. Hill also continued suffering from the fumbling problems he experienced as a rookie. After fumbling five times (losing two) in his first year, he fumbled four times in 2015 and lost all of them — including the game-defining one against the Steelers in the playoffs that postseason.
2016 saw the fumbles dry up for Hill, but little elsewhere improved for the run game. Hill ended with the 18th-most rushing yards again (839), but it came on just 3.8 YPC. Meanwhile, Bernard put up the lowest combined yardage of his career (673), and the now-departed Rex Burkhead added in only another 374 yards on the ground. These efforts saw another 13th-place finish in rushing yardage for the team, and the Bengals tied for 20th in yards per carry.
Delving into advanced statistics does little to clear up this picture in a positive way. Some, like Football Outsiders, point to the group being better than the box score stats would have you assume. The Bengals ranked 18th, 2nd, and 11th in Offensive DVOA, and the run game has been at least 12th in each of those seasons (10th, 7th, 12th).
Most tend to point to either a more mixed bag, however.
Looking at Football Outsiders’ individual DYAR (basically denotes a player’s overall value) and DVOA (basically denotes value on an individual play basis) metrics for Hill and Bernard in 2014-2016 shows mostly the same result we could gather from the box scores:
|DYAR Rank (Hill)||DVOA Rank (Hill)||DYAR Rank (Bernard)||DVOA Rank (Bernard)|
**Bernard’s 2016 was only 10 games, not providing enough snaps to be ranked in this metric.
Pro Football Focus’s grading metrics point to a more negative picture of the actual impacts of these two during their pairing.
While he appears to be a great receiving back option on the surface, Bernard has been average at best in his entire career. He put up a 78.1 overall grade (0-100 scale) in his rookie year (2013), but since Hill came into the fold, he’s been noticeably less effective by PFF’s metrics. 71.0, 73.9, and 69.1 grades are attached to his respective 2014-16 seasons, painting the picture of an okay-but-eminently replaceable secondary option as a runner.
Hill comes out looking even worse. There isn’t a single season which ranks even average in PFF’s grades during Hill’s career. His best (?) came last year with a 68.8. At least Bernard adds in production as a receiver and a blocker (79.0 and 79.4 in 2016, respectively). If Hill isn’t being productive on the ground, he’s just hurting the team.
The Bengals seem to have noticed these issues, and have made moves to fix the problem. Chief among them: Joe Mixon was added in the draft. For all of his off-field problems, on-field he has plenty of potential. Unlike either of the Hill-Bernard pairing, he has the skill set to stay on the field during all downs, giving the Bengals an effective every-down option.
Few teams stick with just one heavy workload guy anymore, but having a guy with Mixon’s talents could make the Bengals weigh somewhat more towards that plan. In college, he picked up 1,274 rushing yards at a 6.8 YPR clip and 10 rushing touchdowns. He also added in 538 yards in the receiving game (as well as five more scores).
Stylistically, he can bang up the middle, speed around the edge, and elude tacklers in space. At his best, he can combine the top qualities of Hill and Bernard into one player (though admittedly, he isn’t quite in the same class of banger as Hill).
Beyond Mixon, there are other depth options either already on the team or more recently brought into the fold who could take on key roles in 2017 if circumstances line up properly.
Peerman has long been on the roster (since 2010), though he’s rarely played. There must be something about him the team likes to keep him around for so long. Hewitt has been the de-facto fullback, mainly acting as a blocker from the backfield. Laufasa is an actual fullback. Jarveon Williams and Stanley Williams are a couple smaller backs who could fill a role similar to what Bernard currently does if he isn’t the same after his torn ACL.
With all these options to sort through, I think we could see a big change in the pecking order at multiple points.
While Hill will likely be given every chance to hold onto the starting role, Mixon’s addition and attached skill-set has him in prime position to take over the role by the start of the season. Had Hill kept up his 2014 pace the past couple years, Mixon probably isn’t even added to the group. Since he didn’t, the upside is clearly higher by looking to Mixon.
This is made even more likely with Bernard coming off injury. If Bernard had finished the year healthy, the option of having him start and Hill act as the No. 2 would perhaps be a palatable change without shaking things up too much; though that shouldn’t be completely off the table, the likelihood of Bernard being picked to lead the group was lessened even before Mixon coming into the fold.
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Furthermore, if things don’t go well in the continued recovery process for Bernard (remember, ACLs take awhile to fully recover from; it’s often stated that it takes two years for a player to feel all the way back after this sort of injury, and Bernard’s happened multiple months into the season), that could lead to the need for one of the Williams to be kept around. Peerman could realistically be called upon, but one of the Williams would seem to fill a clearer role than he could.
Looking at the fullback spot, the team seems to like Hewitt, and he does decent job as a blocker. If blocking is all the Bengals really want from that spot though, Laufasa may be a better option.
Hewitt does seem to add more fluidity between lining up as a fullback or tight end, but the team already has five players besides him who can line up at tight end, so the necessity for that is limited. He rarely catches passes either (20 catches in 47 games), so he’s even less necessary in that regard. Laufasa’s blocking was key to his college team (UTEP) racking up 185.5 rushing yards per game and 20 rushing touchdowns in 2016, and his ability in that facet could easily challenge what Hewitt is able to provide.
The Bengals have a ton of possible routes to go with this grouping they’ve assembled, many of which could work out positively for them.
They could mostly stand pat with what they’ve already had going. Assuming health for the pairing, Hill and Bernard have been at worst a decent one-two punch by multiple metrics, and keeping that continuity could be key with the losses on the offensive line likely to be an issue. Mixon could be brought in for spurts and planned for a bigger future role while keeping what has worked to a degree intact for now.
Maybe they would like to lean towards more power in the run game; a plan like that could help out that offensive line by giving them less to worry about, letting them grind forward instead of hold their ground. This would allow Hill to still hold a prominent role, and would give Laufasa a better chance of making the roster with a clear-cut role as a punishing up-the-middle blocker.
A move in the other direction could also be in the cards. It wouldn’t be easier on the line, but the best talents on this offense lie in their skill positions out wide. Have Mixon and Bernard (and/or one of the Williamses, if Bernard isn’t healthy) work on a ton of dumpoffs and flats passes to take steam away from opposing pass rushers and keep the ball moving.
Of those, I’d lean towards the second being what ends up happening. But based on personnel, any of them would be plausible while having a decent shot at providing success. We’ll just have to wait and see which road Cincinnati decides to follow.