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Bengals battle of the reserve running backs: Tra Carson vs Bronson Hill

Will Tra Carson or Bronson Hill make the Bengals’ practice squad in 2016?

Cincinnati Bengals v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

You can never have too many running backs. It’s a common saying that makes oh so much sense at a position where a significant part of the job is absorbing crushing blows from defenders whose entire focus at the point of contact is making sure that you don’t gain that extra half an inch that could be the difference between a forced punt and an extended drive.

The body of a running back takes an incredible amount of punishment over the course of the season. So, it’s no surprise that teams like the Bengals really like having as many options as they can at the position as insurance in case something happens to a dynamic playmaker like Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard.

On top of special teams and wild card playmaker considerations, this is a big reason why the Bengals have been so content to keep four running backs on the roster every year since 2011. It’s also why the Bengals always make a point to pick up an extra running back or two late in the draft or as college free agents each year. They usually prefer to keep at least one running back on the practice squad, in case something goes wrong on the active roster.

This year, it appears as if the Bengals have two options for the practice squad: Bronson Hill and Tra Carson. Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman will undoubtedly be kept on the final roster as they both have since 2013. It’s unlikely that both Hill and Carson will be retained due to the limited amount of space on the practice squad, so the battle should be an interesting one to watch.

So far, the battle looks like Carson’s to lose. He’s recorded a total of 13 touches for 39 yards. On one occasion against the Vikings, he broke free for a 19 yard run that looked like it could have helped to set up a good scoring drive for the Bengals late in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, the drive ended with an interception thrown by Keith Wenning. But, it was still an interesting breakout play for Carson, the former Texas A&M back, in his first game in the NFL. He added another set of pretty good plays to his film collection against the Lions, including this eight yard reception that helped the Bengals put together their final touchdown drive.

It’s not the most electrifying play in the history of running back receptions. But, Carson flashes his athleticism by taking Lions cornerback Rashaad Reynolds off balance enough that he picks up an extra six yards on the play. Should the Bengals require the services of a reserve running back in the future, the ability to successfully perform a double move is something that Carson can boast.

By contrast, Bronson Hill hasn’t been quite as productive in the reserve role. After going undrafted, Hill spent time in 2015 on the Bills, Bears, Dolphins and Saints. In two preseason games with the Bengals, he has put together seven touches for 21 yards. Hill has been more steady than Carson in that he hasn’t put together any plays for negative yardage. But, his only big play so far is an 18 yard run against the Lions that was called back for offensive holding.

You have to like Hill’s vision on this play and ability to find the open hole, making Lions defenders miss tackles with his deceptive speed. But, you also have to wonder just how much he would have accomplished on this play if Alex Redmond hadn’t illegally held Lions defensive tackle Kerry Hyder back. Alex Erickson made up for the penalty with a 10 yard reception on the next play, but Hill was only able to put together a one yard gain when given the opportunity, again sans holding.

When you get right down to it, the Bengals are likely choosing between a running back with more upside and more mistakes in Carson or a less exciting but steadier running back in Hill. For the reserve role, you can definitely see why the steadier option would be appealing for a Bengals front office that tends to prefer stability over flashiness.

At the same time, Carson has just been the more noticeable player of the two. That could be a good thing and a bad thing. But, when you’re talking about a guy who will probably spend the whole season on the practice squad, it also makes sense that you would want to try to develop the player who has shown more potential.