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Bengals 2016 Roster Reset: State of running back position

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In 2016, running back will be one of Cincinnati's biggest strengths, but 2017 offers more questions than answers.

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You could make a good argument for running back being the strength of the Cincinnati Bengals.

In terms of talent, experience, versatility and depth, no other position on the roster meets that criteria better than the quartet of Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman. With those guys being locks for the 53-man roster this fall, it's no surprise that the Bengals haven't drafted a back for two straight years now.

Going into the 2016 season it looks as though Hill will once again be the primary back as he enters Year 3 and is poised for a big year. The Bengals' second-round pick out of LSU in the 2014 NFL Draft quickly ascended into a star role for an offense that desperately wanted to pound the rock more frequently.

As a rookie, Hill gashed opposing defenses during his final nine games of the regular season, posting 929 yards (105 more than any other player) and 5.4 yards per carry (also the highest during that stretch). That included three runs of at least 60 yards as he appeared on the verge of becoming a superstar back.

But the dreaded sophomore slump plagued Hill in 2015 as he struggled to find the same magic that helped him dominate the league as a rookie. He finished the year with just 794 yards on 224 carries (3.6 ypc), but did score 12 total touchdowns (11 rushing, 1 receiving) after netting nine scores as a rookie. He also had three fumbles in the regular season and one in the postseason, the latter being one he and the Bengals won't soon forget.

While Hill is the hammer of the Bengals' offense, Bernard is more of a dual-threat guy who can burn defenses up the middle, sideline to sideline or down the field via the pass.

During his first three years in the NFL, Bernard has rushed for 2,105 yards on 495 carries (4.3 ypc) with 12 touchdowns. He's become one of the league's best dual-threat backs, catching 148 passes for 1,335 yards and five more scores. That includes 730 rushing yards on 154 carries (4.7 ypc) and two scores with 49 catches for 472 yards this past season.

Despite his 5-foot-9, 205-pound frame, Bernard has been pretty durable, missing just three games out of a possible 51 games (includes the playoffs). Though he's shared carries with Hill for the past two seasons, there's no question Bernard has been a very pivotal part of the Bengals' offense. Over the last three seasons, only A.J. Green (253) has more catches than Bernard (148).

But will 2016 be the final year of Bernard in Bengals stripes? As of now, 2016 is the final year of his rookie deal, leaving a bit of uncertainty regarding his future. It doesn't help his case that Hill has gotten the bulk of the carries over the past two seasons, so maybe he looks to leave this offseason for a team that will make him the feature back, ala what Marvin Jones did this offseason.

Then again, Hill's fumbling and consistency issues have kept him from fully taking over the No. 1 running back role, not to mention the Bengals seem to prefer Bernard as the No. 2 guy so he can get a lot of targets in the passing game as well. That's probably the best method for both guys impacting the Bengals' offense the most, so hopefully the team finds a way to re-sign Bernard, regardless of whether he's the No. 1 or No. 2 option.

Just as Gio's future is uncertain, so too is that of Rex Burkhead. Running back may be his position, but wide receiver is where Burkhead has slowly worked to find a role in the Bengals offense. A former sixth-round pick out of Nebraska via the 2013 NFL Draft, Burkhead was the second back Cincinnati drafted that year after grabbing Bernard in Round 2.

Like Bernard, Burkhead is a versatile back who can do damage between and outside the tackles, as well as the passing game. That said, Burkhead appeared in just 10 games over his first two seasons, most of which coming as a special teams guy who on rare occasions would get snaps at running back.

Those were hard to come by though with Hill and Bernard occupying the bulk of those snaps. Burkhead finished 2014 with just seven grabs for 79 yards and nine rushes for 27 yards and one score. After the season, the Bengals decided to work Burkhead more at wide receiver during OTAs and training camp practices.

That may have been a well-calculated move with how many receivers the Bengals may lose this offseason. Burkhead went on to get more playing time at receiver this past season. Though he caught just 10 passes on 15 targets for 94 yards and one score, he made several impressive grabs that showed just how good a pass-catcher he was becoming.

His lone touchdown came against the Steelers in Week 14 as he made a quick adjustment to a throw by AJ McCarron in a tight area to secure his first score of 2015. If he continues to become a viable pass-catcher, he could be in for his biggest year as a Bengals in 2016.

The last but certainly not least back is the eldest one in Cedric Peerman. Appearing in all 16 games this season, Peerman was a difference-maker on special teams. He racked up a team-high 17 special teams tackles (13 solo tackles) and downed several key punts.

Led by Peerman, the Bengals' special teams unit was dominant, ranking third in opponents' average start drive on kickoffs and second on punts. He's quietly established himself as one of football's top gunners and one of the Bengals' most inspirational locker room presences, leading the team in special teams tackles for two consecutive years.

That finally led to Peerman's first Pro Bowl appearance in his six-year career this past season and the first time the Bengals send a special teamer (other than a punter or kicker) to the Pro Bowl. Like Gio and Rex, Peerman is also in the final year of his rookie deal.

Here's a look at what the depth chart at running back looks like now heading into the summer.

Starter: Jeremy Hill

Backup/Third-Down Back: Giovani Bernard

Special Teams Guy: Cedric Peerman

Practice Squad Candidates: Tra Carson, Bronson Hill, Dy'Shawn Mobley.

Expect the Bengals to carry at least one back on their practice squad in hopes of grooming him and possibly having him ready for the 53-man roster in 2017 if Peerman, Rex and/or Bernard leave. It's possible two running backs could land on the practice squad, as was the case in 2015.

Wildcard: Does Rex Burkhead stick to his dual WR/RB role, or will he make the switch to WR with that being a bigger area of need in 2016? If he stays at RB, then the four spots here are locked up. If he moves to WR, a surprise player could make the final roster.