Draft over, Bengals running game now facing reality

CINCINNATI – The NFL Draft excites everyone with the possibilities new players bring. It’s also a reality check.

New players coming in mean older players must go. Not everyone gets to stay at the party.

The Bengals went into last weekend’s draft knowing running back was an area in need of upgrading. They wasted little time in choosing North Carolina running back Geovani Bernard in the second round with the 37th overall pick, a draft choice they received from Oakland as part of the Carson Palmer trade two years ago. They added Rex Burkhead, the fifth-leading rusher all-time in Nebraska history, in the sixth round.

They have also reportedly signed Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb as an undrafted college free agent, swelling their numbers in the offensive backfield, with the inclusion of fullbacks Chris Pressley, John Conner and Jourdan Brooks.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still going to be the workhorse of the group and get the majority of the carries but the Bengals were just 18th in the NFL’s rushing stats last season, averaging 109.1 yards per game. Green-Ellis had a career-best 1,094 yards, including topping 100 yards four times in a five-game stretch when the Bengals began their second-half push to the playoffs. Still, he averaged less than four yards per carry and the Bengals are seeking someone who can complement Green-Ellis’ power-laden style with more speed.

Enter Bernard.

In two seasons at North Carolina, Bernard rushed for more than 2,400 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry while scoring 25 touchdowns on the ground. He added six more receiving touchdowns and two scores as a punt returner.

“(I’m) just a guy that’s a well-rounded running back. A guy that, wherever he needs to be, that’s where he’s going to be,” said Bernard. “You can put me in any type of situation, plug me in any type of offense, and I’ll execute. I’m a smart guy, a guy that’s going to hit the playbook and understand what he is going to have to do. And I’m a guy that is going to accept his role, whatever that role is.”

Green-Ellis knew of Bernard before the Bengals drafted him. A fan had asked Green-Ellis on Twitter about Bernard. Green-Ellis gave him a thumbs-up. Green-Ellis took Bernard as well as new defensive end Margus Hunt and safety Shawn Williams out to dinner on Saturday when the three were in town to meet the media.

“Gio is a guy that comes in from what he did at college as a guy who can do a lot of different facets of the game whether it be catching the ball out of the backfield, returning punts and things like that,” Green-Ellis said. “All things seem good on paper (but) we have to put them out into play. Last year was last year. Our biggest thing for this year is we have to put last year behind us and we also have to put the year before behind us. We have a lot of questions about being a playoff team. Nobody right now is a playoff team.”

Green-Ellis came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi, signed by New England. He played in nine games as a rookie, getting three starts, and gradually increased his role with the Patriots over his four seasons with them. He scored 24 touchdowns with them his last two seasons before joining the Bengals last season as an unrestricted free agent.

He came in and did what the Bengals asked him to do, mainly improve their short-yardage game. He led the NFL by converting 14 of 15 attempts on third-and-one and scored six touchdowns.

Green-Ellis is a perfect example of how inexact of a science the draft and talent evaluation is.

“The draft is really a hype process, an over-hyped process,” Green-Ellis said. “I knew that from the beginning. Nobody is going to argue or deny the fact that it’s good for the league and it’s good for business so nobody’s complaining.

“You approach it like you approach everything else. I think at the end of season everybody is going to have four, five or six running backs on their roster and the Cincinnati Bengals are no different. People put all of this hype on things and it’s all the same. It never changes. You look at the NFL and it seems like things are new, nothing is new. It’s all the same.”

The addition of Bernard, Burkhead and McCalebb to the roster means a fight for jobs. Typically the Bengals have kept one fullback and three or four running backs on their 53-man roster. Brian Leonard has signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent but returnees Bernard Scott, Cedric Peerman and Dan Herron have new challenges ahead of them.

Peerman has a solid track record as a special teams player going for him, while Herron improved throughout last season as a member of the practice squad before getting called up to the active roster for the final four games of the season. He contributed a blocked punt and four tackles on special teams in his limited playing time.

Scott is the player at most risk. He’s coming off a torn ACL injury. Selected in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, Scott was to be that change-of-pace back for the Bengals complementing Cedric Benson and then Green-Ellis. At times he showed he could be that player but injuries and circumstances have limited those times.

Now he faces the reality of the NFL a little more up close than in his previous four seasons.

“I look at it as every year as you’ve got something to prove,” said Scott. “You never know when it’s going to be your last time on the field. You can get hurt or if you don’t produce in the time that you’re here, they can decide to go separate ways with you so I look at every year as a make-or-break year for me.

“I feel like my expectation is to go out there and be great and do the best that I can do to help the team win and just go out there and show my God-given ability. I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of me staying out on the field.”