It's almost a necessity for an NFL team to have a running back(s) on their roster with the ability to catch the football out of the backfield. Outside of Brian Leonard, the Cincinnati Bengals haven't had this type of back on their roster for some time. Instead of using that slasher/speed back, they have preferred to use the workhorse pounders in recent years with Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
It's not entirely their fault though, as they tried to institute this type of player recently in Bernard Scott. After flashing as a rookie, Scott battled injuries, reduced carries and inconsistent offensive line play to have him fighting for a roster spot this offseason on a one-year, prove-it deal. Making things harder for Scott is the addition of two versatile running backs in the draft in second round selection Giovani Bernard and sixth round pick Rex Burkhead.
As has been noted on numerous occasions, the coaches love what Gio Bernard brings to the running back stable. He has good speed, shiftiness and can be used in a multitude of ways. Recently, more and more indications are arising that Bernard could actually line up at wide receiver in some packages (courtesy of Marc Sessler at NFL.com).
Running backs coach Hue Jackson who not only loves the rookie back, but bears a striking resemblance to him, recently said:
"He's so natural catching the ball. He can catch it like a receiver," Jackson said. "I knew he could catch it really well, but I wouldn't be surprised if he could go out there and line up outside and catch balls like some other guys can because he has that skill set."
We can definitely see times where Bernard could line up in the slot to create mismatches with linebackers with short passes. We already know that he will slide out of the backfield for passes as well. Personally, I don't foresee a scenario where the Bengals end up using him as a hybrid player like Percy Harvin or Dexter McCluster. Rather, I envision him as a wide receiver in specific packages--perhaps in multiple tight end formations.
He was used in these capacities at times at North Carolina and it proved effective for the Tarheels offense. Take a look at the video below at the one-minute and minute-and-a half marks to see some examples:
In my viewing of Bernard's tape, the thing that impresses me the most is his ability to maintain his balance--particularly in traffic and/or where defenders are diving at his legs. Though this skill is handy when running the ball between the tackles, it's also a coveted ability in the open field after making a catch. I'm sure that the hope of the Bengals coaching staff is that he is able continue to bring this to the pro level as well.