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Bengals Roster Bubble Watch: Halfback

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Who will make the team as the fourth and likely final halfback?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was one of the few Bengals who played well in the playoff loss against the Chargers.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was one of the few Bengals who played well in the playoff loss against the Chargers.
John Grieshop

The Bengals already have two young explosive halfbacks at their disposal. Giovani Bernard is the scat back, while Jeremy Hill is the power back. Of course, these two are guaranteed locks and will receive the lion's share of carries. Cedric Peerman, as the special teams captain and backup scat back, is a virtual lock.

That leaves just one more spot for this positional group. Note that the Bengals tend to group fullbacks along with tight ends, rather than with halfbacks.

The fourth halfback ought to be someone who can come in when the team has a comfortable lead and churn out some decent yardage while running the clock down. One also has to consider how well he can perform on special teams, and whether he could be a multiple-year long-term option or not (and how valuable is that compared to keeping a one-year short-term option who might or might not be more effective when looking solely at the 2014 season).

BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been the Bengals starting halfback for the past two seasons. Green-Ellis provides a solid veteran presence, especially for the younger backs, and is a great locker-room guy.

However, his play has somewhat declined, with only a 3.4 yard-per-carry average in 2013, albeit he did finish the year strong with productive games against the Ravens and Chargers. He is 29 years old after 6 productive years in the league and is likely somewhat near the end of his career; he is in the final year of his Bengals contract. Furthermore, one has to question how well he is able to contribute on special teams, if at all.

Some have brought up the point of potentially releasing Green-Ellis early to allow him an opportunity elsewhere- but that is unlikely to happen, because at the very least he is necessary preseason depth in case of injury (knock on wood). If we were to release him early, we would have already made the decision to do so in June for what would have been a net savings of $2.5 million. So he will likely be cut only on Cutdown Day, if at all.

Rex Burkhead was the Bengals sixth-round pick in 2013. He had a very solid career at Nebraska both on and off the field, as a top-5 rusher in the school's history and his work with 8-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman. Burkhead played in only one game in 2013, and exclusively on special teams.

In 2012, his final year at Nebraska, he had 6.9 yards-per-carry. While he is not as experienced as The Law Firm and may or may not be a better short-term option, Burkhead has fresher legs and would undoubtedly be a better long-term option. Burkhead showed outstanding blocking skills in training camp, stonewalling Emmanuel Lamur for a full 5 seconds in a drill:

Like The Law Firm, Burkhead doesn't have any particularly outstanding measurables, but Gio Bernard has praised Burkhead's effort and strives to emulate him.

James Wilder Jr. was a prime college free agency acquisition in 2014. He improved every year on the field at Florida State, despite having to split time with other running backs; in 2013 his yards-per-carry was 7.0. He has impressive size at 6'2" and 232 pounds, significantly bigger than the other two.

However, he is the slowest, with a 4.83 40 time (not that BJGE and Burkhead are fast, either). Wilder's general body of work seems to be less refined than BJGE and Burkhead, particularly in his upright running style. Wilder also displayed poor blocking skills in training camp, getting completely thrashed by Brandon Joiner in the same blocking drill that Burkhead shined in.

Furthermore, he was arrested 4 times while at Florida State. However, he seems to have potentially turned a corner, helping feed the homeless in Washington Park:

I think it will probably be Green-Ellis, because of the coaches favoring him for his intangibles and past production. Personally, though, I think it clearly ought to be Burkhead for his long-term potential and special-teams play, plus I believe he is no worse of a present-day option than Green-Ellis, or is even a better present-day option. Burkhead's all-around rushing, receiving, and blocking ability leads me to believe he could be a Brian Leonard-type back.