Following a 2013 season that saw the Bengals' starting running back put up only 756 yards on the season, averaging only 3.4 yards per rush, the Bengals decided to put an emphasis on the running game in the offseason. As a result, the Bengals hired ground-game-oriented offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, and drafted Jeremy Hill in the second round with the 55th pick of the 2014 draft to compete with Giovani Bernard for the starting spot. Hill rewarded the Bengals' faith by winning the starting job before the season's end, and putting up 1,124 yards rushing, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Now with a year of experience under his belt, and the starting job all but locked up to start the season, how will the Bengals utilize his unique talents in his second season?
According to footballguys.com, only 15 running backs rushed for over 1,000 yards in their rookie season between 1998 and 2008. Hitting 1,000 yards in your rookie season does not necessarily qualify you as an "elite" running back, but it does put you in the same company as recognizable names like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Joseph Addai. He will, at the very least, be expected to compete for a Pro Bowl berth based on his stats last season.
Remember Hill's 60 yard touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars?
Or his 85-yard touchdown run on Monday night against the Denver Broncos?
You can expect more of those kinds of runs this season, especially if the offensive line continues to improve and set up holes that would make Shia LaBeouf cringe. Hill has created the majority of his average rushing yardage from yards after contact, ranking fourth among all running backs in 2014 in terms of YAC (2.29). With numbers like that, we could see Hill making enough of an impact on the NFL to be considered one of the best in a matter of only a few years.
Running in a two-back system
Although you can expect quite a bit from him this season, don't expect Hill to have an All-Pro year just yet. According to Paul Dehner Jr, Hill only took 57% of the Bengals' overall rushing attempts in 2014, with Bernard taking 26%. Although it is likely that Hill's total workload will increase this season, don't expect a whole lot of that increase to come from a decrease in Bernard's role. There has been quite a bit of buzz in Cincinnati about Hill's talent and expectations, but the Bengals would be foolish to forget they have one of the best No. 2 running backs in the NFL.
The Bengals are certainly expecting Hill to have an increased role, as well as increased productivity, in the 2015 season. Many fans complain about the unreliability of Andy Dalton and the passing game, which would logically justify a trend toward the naturally safer and more reliable running game.
Complementing the Bengals' offensive scheme
Last offseason, the Bengals talked quite a bit about putting more emphasis on the running game. Although the total number of carries by running backs did not increase much (398 in 2013 to 414 in 2014), the team was able to finish the season with the 6th most effective running game in the NFL (134.2 YPG), as opposed to the 18th most effective in 2013 (109.7 YPG).
If the Bengals can improve their running game even more, the Bengals' running attack could rival the Seattle Seahawks' running game for the most effective in the NFL (172.6 YPG in 2014). However, the ability to actually put together that kind of performance begins with Hill continuing to improve and dominate the NFL.
Although the Bengals' staff want to continue to support and nurture the young passing game, they're also not idiots. Both Hill and Bernard have already proven to be more effective and consistent on offense than anyone in the passing game was in 2014. (the wide receiver group had 19 TDs and 17 INTs in 2014), so Hue Jackson and Marvin Lewis will most likely want to hedge their bets on the safest option, especially with both coaches being under pressure to augment their careers.
What does it all mean?
With the combination of the reliability of the running game last year, the dominance of the offensive line and additions made in the off-season, and the sheer impact of his physical tools, Hill should be expected to have an even better season in 2015 than he did in 2014. However, due to the presence of Bernard and the team's investment into the passing game, fans should temper their expectations a bit for Hill's 2015 season.
Does Hill have the talent to take on 300+ carries and 1500+ yards during the course of the season? Absolutely, but it just doesn't make sense for the Bengals to push his role on the team to that level, just yet. Pushing Hill to those levels in the NFL could take a bit of time, but the end result will definitely be worth it.