Cincinnati Bengals Zero-Snap Spotlight: Tra Carson

Continuing to analyze the Cincinnati Bengals roster with the Zero-Snap Spotlight series, looking at running back Tra Carson.

The Zero-Snap Spotlight series has already seen several entries to this point, delving into the Cincinnati Bengals roster and the lesser-known portions of it. The series looks at players who have been in the league, but have yet to take a snap in an NFL game. Hence the zero-snap moniker.

Here are the players I’ve already looked at: Andrew BillingsMarcus HardisonDavid DeanRyan Brown.

To continue this series, I look at running back Tra Carson.

Coming into the offseason, there was a degree of uncertainty surrounding the running back situation in Cincinnati.

Jeremy Hill had a blasé 2016 to follow up a game-changing fumble which helped ruin an expected win against the Steelers in the 2015 playoffs. Giovani Bernard tore his ACL towards the end of the year. No. 3 back Rex Burkhead took his 344 rushing yards (on a 4.6 yards-per-carry average) and useful pass-catching to New England.

There were two paths to take: Continue with the Hill-Bernard duo in charge, or make substantive changes. Had they gone with the first, Carson could have been in line for a key role.

Carson was brought to the team after an exciting 2015 senior season at Texas A&M. During that year, he racked up 1,165 yards on 4.8 yards per carry and rushed for seven touchdowns. He also proved to be a decent option on passing plays, grabbing 29 catches for 183 yards and one score.

Leading up to the 2016 draft, Hogs Haven gave him a player comp of Cincinnati’s Hill, and based on his style that makes sense. He has the same sort of decisiveness and power needed to bang up the middle. In some senses, he may also be a better option. Particularly, he adds a bit more receiving ability to his package.

It may seem redundant to have two guys who are quite similar in skill-set, but when accounting for possible injuries and down-the-road planning, it makes sense. Hill’s contract is set to end after this season, when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Carson, meanwhile, is under contract through 2018. When his contract is up, he’ll be an exclusive rights free agent.

Those seemingly miniscule differences could prove vital to the eventual decisions made. As an ERFA, Carson can be locked into a much lower contract number than set-to-be-UFA Hill. Hill will also need to have his situation determined a year before anything is done with Carson. With how the running back market has evolved, few guys get major offers anymore (unless they are among the best in the league at the time). Hill could earn a quality offer (from Cincinnati or elsewhere) with an improved 2017, but even if his lead back role were to stay the same this season it would be tough to expect him to reach a level he’s never quite approached.

This is all without considering the move to add Joe Mixon.

In Hill’s best case scenario, Mixon will be brought along slowly, acting as either the No. 2 to Hill or No. 3 behind him and a post-ACL-tear Bernard. Based on Mixon’s talent and Hill’s proven level of skill, it doesn’t feel likely to last long, though.

Without the off-field problems, Mixon could easily have been a first round selection. And though Cincinnati tends to bring young players along slowly, he’s the sort of on-field talent which can change their mind. That can flip him into the starting role after not long, pushing Hill to a secondary or tertiary role (depending on Bernard’s recovery).

This all is important when considering Carson’s future with the team. A lesser role for Hill makes the odds of him leaving — for a bigger role, better contract, or both — much greater. With no Hill, Carson could have a full year before his contract ends to prove his worth and maybe grab a key role in the running back committee without the similarly-skilled Hill standing in his way.

He’ll have to survive that long first, however.

DETROIT, MI – AUGUST 18: Tra Carson

If this happens, Mixon is the lead back. Behind him would probably be Bernard, who is under contract until 2020. Carson may seem primed for the No. 3 role in this iteration, but he’s not the only player remaining.

The Bengals still have long-time backup Cedric Peerman, who they like. Also, this offseason, the Bengals also added three more backs: Jarveon Williams, Stanley Williams, and Darrin Laufasa. The strengths of those players are vastly different from Carson’s. While Carson is a banger, both Williams are speedy scatbacks and Laufasa is a pure blocking fullback.

The diversity in skills would seem to have those players act more as threats to other players (the Williams for Bernard; Laufasa for HB/TE Ryan Hewitt), but Carson could also be impacted. Those players may be chosen not to replace others, but join them as part of a plan to adjust the overall gameplan of the team.

Adding Laufasa could point to an emphasis on power run packages; keeping one (or both) of the Williams could make the use of backs in the passing game more prominent. In neither case should Carson feel secure. Despite his decent catching ability, emphasizing backs in the passing game gives an advantage to either Williams. The Laufasa move would seem to help Carson, but if Mixon proves capable of handling up-the-middle work (quite possible) that removes the need for Carson beyond injury depth.

I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those occurrences come to fruition. As of now, there isn’t a pure blocking fullback here beyond Laufasa, and keeping him opens packages that Hewitt alone cannot. With Bernard still recovering from his ACL tear — and that being an injury which normally takes two years to come fully back from — having one of the Williams would be a good plan.

For Carson to find (and keep) a role on this team, he has to have so many possibilities work out in his favor. Hill has to leave this offseason. Either Laufasa or the two Williams (preferably the latter) must not make the roster. The team must stick to a more power-run approach over the spread-out one which may favor the skill position talents in place. Oh, and he must perform well if he ever does reach the field.

It won’t be impossible, but the odds are stacked firmly against him, both in the short- and long-term. Expecting even a depth role is tough in either case. If he can stick around — much less manage to ever make significant contributions — I’ll be surprised.

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