There aren't many open spots on the Bengals' roster this year and the running back position is no different. Barring injuries, the top three running backs are locked: Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead. That being said, there will still be plenty to watch for in the Bengals' backfield when camp opens this summer.
As far as I am concerned, Jeremy Hill is a lock for the starter role at running back and the bulk of the carries. Giovanni Bernard is a lock for the change-of-pace and the receiving back, and Rex Burkhead is a lock as the third back on the roster – and the back who will be the backup for Bernard and possibly the slot receiver role. That being said, when training camp opens at Paul Brown Stadium, there will plenty of battles waging on in the Bengals’ backfield.
Hill vs Bernard
This battle will be the most intriguing to follow, but will not be a battle for the starter role – a role Hill has earned. The battle between Hill and Bernard will be for the amount of carries and snaps Bernard takes from Hill.
For the past two years I have been talking and writing about how Bernard is a bigger version of Darren Sproles and how he should be used the way the Saints used Sproles – limited carries, but a lot of short passes. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bernard, but I don’t think he is the lead back Hill can be and I think he will be a bigger asset to the Bengals if he is kept fresh and used in the roles he excels in – catching passes and running delayed handoffs. I love both Hill and Bernard, but the Bengals offense is more efficient and more explosive when Hill is the lead runner and Bernard is used situationally.
For me, the ideal situation is around a 70-30 split in carries in favor of Hill. 18-20 carries per week for Hill and 5-10 carries for Bernard. In addition, I would like to see 5-7 passes to Bernard each week – swing plays, wheel routes, etc. Doing so keeps both Hill and Bernard fresh – allowing Hill to more effectively wear down the defense and Bernard to exploit that tired defense and break big plays. For comparison, in his three years in New Orleans, Sproles averaged just 63 carries per year, or just 4 per game. However, he also averaged more than 77 receptions per year, or 5 per game. Sproles was more effective because he stayed fresh and the results were a 5.7 yards per carry average, 21 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards receiving.
Youth, Size and Potential vs Special Teams Stalwart
In my opinion, the biggest battle in the running backs’ room will be for the fourth and final spot. While this battle may not garner the excitement or attention of the Hill v Bernard battle, it is just as important and will be the battle I will have my eye on in training camp.
The fourth running back position will come down to the experience and special teams contributions of Cedric Peerman (5-10, 214 lbs.) versus the size, youth and potential of the young contenders: James Wilder, Jr. (6-1, 232 lbs.), Terrell Watson (6-1, 242 lbs.) and Mark Weisman (5-11, 242 lbs.).
The Incumbent: Cedric Peerman
Peerman is a sixth year veteran out of Virginia, has been a special team stalwart for the past three or four years and is the type of "Pro’s pro" the Bengals’ coaching staff loves. Peerman’s special team skills earned him a two year extension this past offseason, but the numbers are not enough to guarantee a roster spot. At 5-10, 214 lbs., Peerman does not have the size of a typical lead back, the speed or quickness of a typical change-of-pace back and has contributed very little outside of special teams during his time with the Bengals. For a guy who will turn 29 one month into the 2015 season, Peerman’s roster spot is certainly in play if one of the bigger/faster/younger backs can prove their mettle on special teams.
Top Contender (1a): James Wilder, Jr.
The 6’1", 232 pound former Florida State Seminole had 8 touchdowns and averaged nearly 7.0 yards per carry during the Seminoles 2013 BCS title run. Wilder is a big back who could certainly provide the Bengals more from an offensive standpoint than the smaller Peerman and would be physically capable of shouldering the workload were Hill to go down. Wilder spent the 2014 season on the practice squad, but the Bengals felt the need to sign him to a futures contract, which to me, is a signal of their intention to have Wilder on the 53-man roster in 2015. However, to unseat Peerman, Wilder will have to show some versatility and an ability to contribute on special teams. The Bengals have given Wilder a look at fullback, and if they like what they saw, Wilder would provide them an active roster insurance policy for Ryan Hewitt, should Hewitt go down – something they do not currently have. Personally, I would like to see Wilder make the team as the fourth back, but it will ultimately come down to special teams.
Top Contender (1b): Terrell Watson (R)
Speaking of intriguing options at the running back position, Terrell Watson was a rookie free agent signing who provides a lot of upside. Like Wilder, he is a big back (6’2", 240 pounds) with good speed (4.51 40-yard dash). Unlike Wilder, Watson did not play against top competition at Azusa Pacific (NAIA). However, Watson shattered every running back record at Azusa Pacific – a record book that was peppered with records compiled by another big back…Christian Okoye. Watson is unlikely to make the 53-man roster, but for a guy who rushed for 78 touchdowns in four years, including 29 as a senior, I wouldn’t rule him out. With a good showing in training camp, Watson will be a prime candidate for the practice squad…if another team doesn’t pick him up.
Long Shot Contender: Mark Weisman (R)
Weisman, like Wilder and Watson is another bruiser. At 6’0", 240 pounds, Weisman had just a 3.8 YPC average in 2014; he is more of a goal line type back in the NFL. In just three seasons at Iowa, Weisman broke the goal line 32 times, including 16 times in 2014. Barring a rash of injuries to the running back position, Weisman will not make the Bengals’ roster, but his ability to score touchdowns and play fullback make him a top practice squad candidate.
Versatility of Burkhead
In my analysis, I assumed Rex Burkhead makes the team as the third back, and barring injury, I believe that will be the case. Burkhead is a complete back, can contribute on special teams, has enough size to be a lead back, enough speed and shiftiness to be a change-of-pace back, and has the hands and route running ability to be a slot receiver. That sort of versatility is something the Bengals coaching staff covets. However, Burkhead has had some nagging injuries and with the young talent the Bengals have in the backfield, if Burkhead can’t stay healthy, his spot on the roster may not be as safe as I have assumed.
General Roster Makeup: 4 Running Backs, 1 Full Back 2015
Running Backs (4): Hill, Bernard, Burkhead, Wilder
Full Back (1): Hewitt
Practice Squad (2): Watson, Weisman