It has been a while since Jeremy Hill was thought of as one of the best running backs in the NFL. In fact, you have to go all the way back to his rookie season and the leadup to his second season in 2015 to find people who genuinely espoused that opinion. But, you only have to go back to Saturday to look back on his worst rushing performance of his career (seven touches for eight yards).
After an impressive 1,124 yards on 222 rushes in only eight starts during his rookie season, he has only managed to put together 1,633 yards during the course of the past two years combined. That’s 20 more starts and 223 more touches with only 509 more yards of production. With one game left to play, Hill has topped his yardage from last season, but not his touchdown total.
Granted, he has remained somewhat consistent in his ability to find the endzone. He scored nine touchdowns in 2014, 12 in 2015, and has scored nine so far this year. That said, the fact that his yards per rush plummeted from 5.1 in 2014 to 3.6 in 2015 and 3.8 in 2016 shows that he has essentially become nothing more than a touchdown vulture. That is, a running back who waits for the rest of the team to get him down the field, and then gets credit for a touchdown due to his ability to punch through the line.
It is a frustrating conundrum that the Bengals find in dealing with Hill. Once a celebrated second round pick in 2014, Hill appeared to be the Bengals’ answer at the running back position. Now, it appears he’s an offensive liability. We keep waiting for Hill to return to being the explosive player he was in 2014, but, the wait has simply become too much to handle.
If things don’t pick up for him soon, there is an argument to make that he should be demoted next year. Giovani Bernard struggled in Hill’s rookie year (4.0 yards per run) and Hill promptly took the starting position as a result. But Bernard picked it up in 2015 (4.7 yards per run) and was averaging 3.7 yards per carry when he was injured in Week 11. Bernard has always been a threat in the receiving game where he had 39 catches for 336 yards this season and had the second most catches on the team at the time of his injury. The one knock against him is that he doesn’t have the same ability to find the endzone that Hill possesses.
In recent weeks, 2013 sixth round pick Rex Burkhead has stepped in, generating 225 yards this season on 47 attempts, good for a 4.8 yard per carry average. He’s been on fire and finally got a chance to show what he was capable of against the Texans. Though, their defense isn’t a great one to show off against. Burkhead has also been effective as a backfield receiver (15 catches for 120 yards), which is nice to have with Bernard on Injured Reserve.
The Bengals’ offensive line is a big reason why the running game has been lackluster this season, but, Burkhead has excelled to a more significant degree than Hill in each of the last two weeks. He looks more focussed and with his eyes on the prize that Hill looks on most of his runs.
With that in mind, and knowing a third-string running back could out-run him, Hill might not be the right choice for the Bengals’ starting running back job in 2017.
Burkhead’s contract is up at the end of the season, as is Cedric Peerman’s. So, if the Bengals do decide to bring Burkhead back while Bernard and Hill are already on the roster, it will more than likely be a strong message to Hill, who will be coming up on a contract year in 2017. With a motivated and productive Burkhead, it certainly seems like there is a very strong argument for Hill opening the 2017 season as the Bengals’ third string running back. Even if the Bengals don’t re-sign Burkhead, they could very likely draft a running back in 2017.
In Hill’s defense, the play of the offensive line has been absolutely atrocious in 2016. As a result, the unit that helped him find so much success in his rookie season is more of a detriment at this point, which could explain his drastically reduced numbers. But, it hasn’t seemed to affect Burkhead’s production, while Bernard found a way to substitute production on the ground for production in the air. There isn’t much of a legitimate excuse for Hill’s overall poor performances. Hill does seem to go down with some kind of minor injury on a near weekly basis, whether it’s his chest, shoulder, knee, or something else. In Saturday’s game in Texas Hill was dealing with a knee injury (which had him questionable on the injury report) and likely led to his significant decrease in playing time (seven snaps).
The Bengals will likely be wary of relegating a player with so much passion and potential to a third string role, but Hill simply isn’t working as the Bengals’ No. 1 running back and shouldn’t be relied on for that role next season.