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Bengals 2012 Training Camp Position Preview: Running Backs & Fullbacks Pt. I

May 22, 2012; Cincinnati, OH USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back  BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs the ball during organized team activities at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-US PRESSWIRE
May 22, 2012; Cincinnati, OH USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs the ball during organized team activities at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-US PRESSWIRE

Longtime starter at running back Cedric Benson is gone, and the Bengals are moving to a running back by committee approach this year, according to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, fresh off a Superbowl appearance with the New England Patriots, was the Bengals biggest free agent signing this offseason. The Law Firm will replace Benson as the main running back, and Bernard Scott is expected to be the other lead back in the 2012 offense. Brian Leonard, a pass catching and pass protection extraordinaire, will probably resume his responsibilities as the team's third down back and a main contributor on special teams. Cedric Peerman has been with the Bengals for two years, and has almost played every special teams snap since then, while rarely touching the ball on offense.

That was the just the introduction. Now, are you ready for a lot of words?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

2011 Stats Carries Yards AVG Touchdowns Receptions Rec Yards

181 667 3.7 11 9 159

BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't the most talented back in the league, but he will get the job done. He's an undrafted player that worked his way up the Patriots' roster until he became their starting running back in 2010, but remained part of a rotation with a lot of other guys. Green-Ellis was their short-yardage/redzone/clock-killing specialist, but he wasn't asked to do much in the passing game. He was very adept at getting the blocked yards, and especially finding the endzone. He has 24 rushing touchdowns in the last 2 years, while all Bengals running backs have managed just 19 in that same time frame. The biggest 'plus' of signing Green-Ellis is that he instantly upgrades the Bengals short-yardage work, which has been a critical weakness for years. His vision and agility aren't up there with the rest of the backs in the league, but he is a competent veteran back who won't make mistakes and won't fumble the football. He's never fumbled in his career. All those features add up to a player who is perfect for a Cincinnati Bengals offense. He won't blow you away, but he'll get the job done.

For this season, his role as a pass-catcher and pass protector may expand from the role he served with the Patriots. He actually ran 133 passing routes last year, but was only targeted 13 times. That tells me Tom Brady wasn't really looking for Green-Ellis as a check down option. Similarly the Patriots receiving running back, Danny Woodhead, ran 272 passing routes, but was only targeted 35 times. Brady just doesn't throw to his running backs. So all we can really conclude is that Green-Ellis is still unproven as a pass-catcher. But, hey, he passes the eye test better than Cedric Benson. Finally, Green-Ellis is an above average pass-blocker. He has the size and technique to get it done (versus, say, a Bernard Scott), and didn't allow a sack in 63 pass-blocking snaps last year.

I expect the Law Firm to improve upon his low 3.7 yards/carry from a year ago. Opposing defenses knew when he was going to get the ball last year, and the Bengals have invested in improving the running game by bringing in two offensive guards whose strengths are run-blocking. We still don't know exactly how Green-Ellis and Scott will split carries this year, but if the Bengals are a winning team who takes the early lead (see 2009), the team as a whole could come close to 500 carries, and Green-Ellis will get a large chunk of those.

2012 Projection: 240 carries, 960 yards, 4.0 yards/carry, 12 touchdowns, 20 receptions, 125 yards

Bernard Scott

2011 Stats Carries Yards AVG Touchdowns Receptions Rec Yards

112 380 3.4 3 13 38

Bengals fans have always held strong opinions about Bernard Scott. Many feel that he has been underutilized in the Bengals offense in the last three years, especially behind the plodding Benson. He did well in his first two seasons, with 4.3 and 4.9 yards/carry in limited action. However, this change of pace back let his yards/carry slip to a horrendous 3.4 average in 2011.

Having re-watched all of Scott's carries from 2011, I feel pretty comfortable in diagnosing the problem. The Bengals offensive line.

Last year, the line was built to pass protect, not run the ball. (each player's Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade will be listed in this paragraph). Left guard Nate Livings (-9.1) constantly missed his assignments, while left tackle Andrew Whitworth (-7.8) was dealing with tenditis and muscle loss in his leg, which took away his power in the run game. Center Kyle Cook (+0.0) performed well enough, but he was surrounded by liabilities on either side of him. Bobbie Williams (+1.8) was the lone Bengals lineman to grade positively in the run-blocking category by Pro Football Focus, but he only played 8 full games. His replacements (Clint Boling (-3.9), Mike McGlynn (-4.1)) struggled to generate any push, and right tackle Andre Smith (-4.4) was stellar in pass protection, but was still learning how to consistently use his power in the running game.

Bernard Scott's weaknesses are amplified by a bad run-blocking offensive line. Scott is a hesitant to approach the line of scrimmage, and doesn't have great vision. He is quick and fast, but not nearly as good at eluding defenders as you think he would be. He needs a clear line ahead of him to be successful. If he has a clear line, he won't get scared approaching the line of scrimmage, he won't get caught going sideways, and he'll finally gain the confidence in himself to hit the hole with a burst. That will be very important to the Bengals offense next year. Green-Ellis's breakaway speed and open field agility is limited, so Scott needs to be the one that breaks off long runs.

As a pass protector, Scott is never going to be very good. He is small and lacks good technique in locking onto the defender. He may be able to slow defenders down with an initial hit, or maybe a cut block. But, to rely on Scott to pass block for more than a few seconds is foolish. As a pass catcher, he is pretty average. He made a few drops last year, but he generally can get the job done. He really needs to learn to catch the ball while moving forward, though. Overall, Scott has the agility to be a weapon in open space, but he hasn't been productive in the past.

2012 Projection: 160 carries, 700 yards, 4.4 yards/carry, 3 touchdowns, 15 receptions, 75 yards.

Brian Leonard

2011 Stats Carries Yards AVG Touchdowns Receptions Rec Yards

17 85 5.0 0 22 210

Brian Leonard has always been something of a hero to Bengals fans. He hurdles linebackers, never makes mistakes, and always seems to be able to convert that long third down.

He came to Cincinnati in a trade with the St. Louis Rams, who had drafted him in the second round of the 2007 draft. In the three seasons since then, he has been the team's primary 3rd down running back. What that means is that whenever the Bengals offense is facing a third and long or even fourth and long, Leonard is the guy that comes in to try and salvage the drive. He's held that job for the past three years because he is an elite pass protector and pass catcher. In fact, he's never allowed a sack in his career with the Bengals, and he's been in pass protection for 193 snaps.

As a pass catcher with the Bengals, he's been targeted 95 times and made 80 receptions, with only two drops, according to Pro Football Focus. He has good hands and good open field vision, which makes him a threat when he catches the ball in open space. He isn't super agile, but he fights very hard to stay up and shed tacklers. All that adds up to him being a perfect third down running back, which I expect him to maintain this year.

Leonard has always been a big special teams contributor, he covers kicks and punts with skill, while blocking well for his own team's returns too.

As a first and second down running back though, I don't think the Bengals will give him very many opportunities. Leonard is decent as a runner, but he's not great in any area. He has okay vision behind the line, but he doesn't have elite size, power, or strength like a Peyton Hillis, nor does he have great acceleration and burst. I would also add that his yards/carry and yards/reception numbers are inflated because he is usually given the ball when it's 3rd and 15, and defenses have backed up their linebackers and defensive backs. He might be productive if given an extended opportunity, but you've already got him on the field everywhere else, and Leonard is injury prone. The benefit doesn't outweigh the risk, in my opinion.

2012 Projections: 20 carries, 100 yards, 5.0 yards/carry, 1 touchdown, 25 receptions, 180 yards.

Cedric Peerman

2011 Stats Carries Yards AVG Touchdowns Receptions Rec Yards

3 15 5.0 0 0 0

Peerman wasn't a standout running back in college, but he did well enough to be drafted by the Ravens in the 6th round. He bounced around the league before finding a true home with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he has been a great asset on special teams. He and backup safety Jeromy Miles were on unstoppable missions to bring down the ball carrier last year, and they both should be considered some of the best special teams players in the league.

In combining Pro Football Focus's grades for punts and kickoffs, both Miles and Peerman fell in the top 6 special teams players in the entire league. They also both ranked in the top 15 in tackles made.

All that being said, it will take a lot to unseat Peerman from his role as the 4th running back on the team.

As a runner, he presents limited upside. He has incredible acceleration, strength, and speed, but I think the Bengals have doubts about his vision and decision making. He doesn't have great bulk, and this scouting report even cites that he has "very small hands, which scouts fear will lead to fumbles".

There isn't a great body of work on his pass protection, but he caught the ball pretty well in college, and passes the eye test in both of these regards. The Bengals trust his work in this area as well. He has only 5 career carries with the Bengals but has ran a passing route or protected the quarterback for a total of 55 snaps.

2012 Projections: 5 carries, 30 yards, 6.0 yards/carry, 3 receptions, 15 reception yards.

Running backs Dan Herron, Jourdan Brooks, and Aaron Brown, along with fullbacks Chris Pressley and James Develin will be covered in part two.