Giovani Bernard cashed in on a three year contract extension on Wednesday, reportedly worth more at least $15.5 million. The deal keeps him with the Bengals through 2019. Bernard certainly has earned that contract during his time in Cincinnati, being just one of five players to rush for 2,000 yards and catch for 1,000 yards since 2013. But beyond the fact that Bernard has earned his extension, the success he has had en route to earning that payday shows that the Bengals were right to hold off on a running back until the second round, and it's something every NFL team should consider.
A lot of running backs drafted in the first round have either completely fallen flat or suffered injuries, especially in recent years. Round 1 picks attract multi-million dollar salaries and that causes teams to pay a ton of money to someone who could end up contributing nothing to their team.
Take Trent Richardson for example, the former Cleveland Browns running back was taken third overall by the Browns back in 2012, and his rookie contract was worth $20.4 million. That was fully guaranteed including a $13.6 million signing bonus. Paying that money would have been fine for the Browns if Richardson had panned out. However, Richardson averaged just 3.5 yards per-carry as a Brown, causing them to trade him during the 2013 season. The Browns gave a total of over $34 million to a back who played just 17 games for them, and averaged just 3.5 yards per-carry. Now, Richardson is on the Ravens with no guarantee to make the roster.
Another example of why first round running backs can be too risky is Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall was drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008, and while he did put up back-to-back seasons of 1,000+ rushing yards in 2009 and 2010, he struggled for the rest of his career. His career yards per-carry average was just 3.9, and he had two seasons where he didn't score a single touchdown. He retired after the 2013 season, partly due to injury, and when looking at his career numbers and short-lived tenure, it's hard to justify the $11 million contract that the Steelers gave him after drafting him in the first round.
The contracts for both Richardson and Mendenhall ended up being pretty large for players who didn't pan out as well as they were expected to, and that's the risk you take with a first round running back. There are so many factors that contribute to a running back's success in college, such as the strength of their offensive line, and the difference in speed between college and NFL players, that there is no guarantee that a successful back in college will be a successful back in the NFL.
That's why when the Bengals waited until the second round to Draft Bernard (who was the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft), they made a great choice. They didn't have to pay him first rounder money; his rookie contract was five years for $5.25 million, with only $3.25 million guaranteed. The Bengals were able to work with Bernard for three full seasons without paying him eight figures like Richardson and Mendenhall got, so there was much less risk for Cincinnati. Bernard was able to beat out Benjarvus Green-Ellis for the starting running back job as the Bengals let Green-Ellis walk in free agency before the 2014 season, making Bernard their number one back. Bernard has since been a major factor in Cincinnati's winning seasons and playoff appearances every year since joining the team, and when the Bengals began addressing their upcoming free agents, they knew that they had to tie down one half of their dynamic duo in the backfield.
Bernard's contract is not only good for him, but it's great for the Bengals. Instead of drafting a first round running back and giving him the type of contract that Bernard has now (which actually would've been worth even more, because it would have been a four year deal), they gave Bernard a deal worth much less, found out how valuable he really was, and then proceeded to give him a contract that makes him the 10th-highest paid back in the league. Not only did that allow Cincinnati to see Bernard's real value before throwing a lot of money at him, but because the deal is for three years, the Bengals still aren't tied to Bernard for the long haul just in case he suffers the fate of many running backs who see abrupt and unexpected drops in production as they age. And, what's better is how young Bernard is. When his contract ends with the Bengals at the end of the 2019 season, he'll be only 28-years-old.
This is outstanding work by the Bengals' front office, and it's a business move that other NFL franchises should take note of. The Bengals proved that holding off on a back in the first round can give you time to asses their real value, and then later give the player what he's worth.