Perhaps the hardest trait to uncover in the NFL is consistency. It's tough to come by teams consistently fielding a winning roster, consistently drafting well, and grabbing players who are consistently producing at a high level from year to year. Few Bengals players in the team's history have been as consistent as wide receiver A.J. Green, but not all of their star players experience similar annual production.
Unfortunately, running back Jeremy Hill fell victim to the dreaded "sophomore slump" after a fantastic rookie campaign in 2014. On one hand, some have been excessively hard on a player who still churned out 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns in 2015. But, on the other hand, an often-tentative running style, costly fumbles and a lack of big plays have many souring on the third-year back.
We had a hard time discerning who had more to prove between Hill and center Russell Bodine, so we decided to fence-ride and mark them as No. 1A and No. 1B on our countdown of the Bengals with the most to prove in 2016. Bodine's debut on the list will be coming tomorrow. It's also not a coincidence that the success of one affects the success of the other. Even with the tie, Hill has a lot to prove in 2015--to the coaches, the fans and to himself.
Why he makes the list:
2014 versus 2015: To me, the most telling stat of Hill's 2015 output against his rookie campaign is the yards per carry number. Hill averaged 1.5 less yards per carry last season (5.1 in 2014, 3.6 in 2015), pointing to the tentative nature of his running, ineffectiveness of blocking at times, and the higher emphasis on passing. Expectations were high for Hill and most believed he would be the one to carry the offense, but he didn't--both because he couldn't and didn't end up needing to do so. Thankfully, Andy Dalton had a career year to mask the inefficiencies.
The Wild Card Game: It's a tough situation for the young back, but his fall from grace was complete when he literally fumbled the game away with under two minutes to play and the contest in hand. He only had one more lost fumble in the 2015 regular season versus last year, but the one in the postseason will either mark the demise of the rest of his career, or will be the fuel for a renaissance in 2016.
What he needs to prove:
Sure Hands: It's possible that simply part of what you get with Hill is fumbles. It wasn't something that was on his college tape at all and was a reason the Bengals loved him out of LSU, but he has had a number of costly ones in his two-year career. Much like Tiki Barber did later in his career, it would greatly behoove Hill to work at hanging on to the football. However, it's also important that it doesn't lead to more tentative running or overly-obsessing about it, as he won't get back to his rookie form that way. It was often thought in 2015 that his regression was due to over-thinking, so hopefully, that won't be something that further holds him back in 2016.
The Past is Behind him: Really, the only way Hill will get back to being one of the league's better backs is to focus on the future and what he needs to do to improve. He recently addressed the Wild Card debacle, sounding contrite and eager to move forward, but only on-field time will tell if things are behind him. If the ghosts of 2015 continue to haunt him, it's likely we won't ever see his very high potential reached.