The Bengals are a team that historically likes to run the ball, and want to run it well. Their most recent Super Bowl (1988) team featured the great tandem of James Brooks, and Ickey (gonna’ get some cold cuts) Woods. Marvin Lewis’ first playoff teams featured Rudi Johnson running often, behind a stout offensive line, and his recent teams have heavily run with the duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Because they want to run the ball well, they have invested heavily, with the currency of draft picks, in the components that most directly affect the running game. Consider that their top two running backs were both second round picks. Their starting offensive line consists of a pair of first round picks (Kevin Zeitler and Cedric Ogbuehi), a second rounder (Andrew Whitworth), and two fourth rounders (Clint Boling and Russell Bodine), and their top backup (Jake Fisher) is also a second rounder. Their top tight end (Tyler Eifert) was a first round pick as well.
- Running Back: Giovani Bernard (2)
- Running Back: Jeremy Hill (2)
- Left Tackle: Andrew Whitworth (2)
- Left Guard: Clint Boling (4)
- Center: Russell Bodine (4)
- Right Guard: Kevin Zeitler (1)
- Right Tackle: Cedric Ogbuehi (1)
- Tight End: Tyler Eifert (1)
Their starters have an average draft position of 2.1, so that’s pretty much akin to using second round picks on every position that most affects the running game. And the payoff for this heavy investment is a 10th ranked running game, averaging 116 yards per game with 10 rushing touchdowns and only 4.3 yards per carry.
So this begs the question, is this a good investment that has paid off well, or are the Bengals failing in their investment strategy?
Let’s compare the top five rushing teams in 2016 (through Week 10) in terms of their rushing production vs the draft pick investment that each of their key components in the running game cost.
The Cowboys are the clear standard bearer of a rushing game this year with the dynamic rookie Ezekiel Elliott leading the league in yardage. Their offensive line boasts three first round picks, and they have paid the most (in draft picks) among the top five rushing teams, with an average of a third round pick being used on their starting offensive line, tight end, and top two running backs.
The Bills are not far behind, at 155 yards per game, just as many rushing touchdowns, and an incredible 5.8 yards per carry average. They only have one first round pick, with Eric Wood at center, but have used a lot of early to mid round picks on the positions that affect the running game.
If you see the investment column, you find an interesting trend that as the teams have higher drafted players in key running game positions, their running game improves. The Bills and Cowboys have invested the most, and have received the biggest returns.
So how do the Bengals compare?
So we see something horribly wrong with the chart now. The Bengals have invested much more than any of the top five rushing teams, yet have much worse results. The Bengals have invested heavily into the running game, but they have not seen a return comparable to their investment. It’s as if the top five teams have been investing in S&P 500 companies, while the Bengals are still buying shares of Enron.
Now the question becomes whether the Bengals have made good investments that are just poorly managed (bad play calling and bad coaching), or have made bad investments (Bodine, Fisher and using two second round picks on running backs) that are unable to generate the returns that one would hope, based on what was paid for and utilized to acquire them. The answer is probably a mix of both.