The Bengals have an undeniable problem at the running back position. After a fantastic rookie season put Jeremy Hill on the map (222 runs for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns in eight starts), his production level has dropped off significantly in the two years since (445 runs for 1,633 yards and 20 touchdowns in 28 starts).
Fourth-year running back Rex Burkhead stepped his game up when given the opportunity, but he is an unrestricted free agent and could sign a sizeable contract with another team in the offseason. Cedric Peerman is also an unrestricted free agent, so that leaves Giovani Bernard as the only reliable running back left on the team.
If they can’t re-sign Burkhead, the Bengals might want to consider picking up a running back in this year’s draft to compete with Hill. The Bengals have to do something about a rushing attack that was for from theartening for much of the 2016 season. That very well might mean preparing to move on from Hill, whose current contract will be up after 2017.
If the Bengals are considering taking a top running back with their lofty draft positioning (No. 9 overall), Mel Kiper’s annual draft rankings list these players as the top prospects the Bengals should be thinking about:
*1. Leonard Fournette (LSU)
Very few running backs enter the NFL Draft with the kind of hype that Fournette brings. Compared to NFL greats like Bo Jackson and Adrian Peterson, Fournette blends size, speed, and power seamlessly. If the Bengals are considering him, it is fitting as he replaced Hill at LSU. Like Hill, his physical running style and athleticism are what make him so enticing as a prospect. But, unlike Hill, he doesn’t have that frustrating tendency to bounce around in the backfield and get in his own way. He sometimes over-commits to his first idea, which can get him in trouble, but he does it so well that it is usually a non-issue.
*2. Dalvin Cook (Florida State)
While Fournette reminds you of Hill in certain areas, Cook might be the closest comparison to Hill in this year’s draft. He comes into the NFL with some character concerns due to multiple arrests. He has never received a conviction for any of his arrests, but the fact that they keep happening is a red flag. Like Hill on the field, he is a downhill runner who flourishes behind mobile blockers and can one-cut with the best of them. He also has fumbled a frustrating number of times in his college career (13). However, his upside is high enough that he will probably be taken in the first round. It is very unlikely that he would fall to the Bengals in the second round, and unwise for the Bengals to take him at No. 9.
*3. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
1,639 rushing yards despite an injury in 2016 says it all. This kid can run. Son of the great Broncos receiver, Ed McCaffery, Christian is a favorite among professional and amateur scouts looking for the next great ‘under-the-radar’ guy. He was arguably the top running back in college in 2015, but didn’t have the same visibility of Derrick Henry of Alabama, placing second in Heisman voting. Regardless, no one should sleep on him in the NFL. At Stanford, he was always known as a great teammate and leader who pushes his teammates to succeed. He would be a fantastic presence in the Bengals’ locker room if he falls to their second round pick.
*4. D’Onta Foreman (Texas)
If the Bengals are looking to find a player who is very dissimilar to Giovani Bernard in both running style and size, to put together a really well balanced one-two punch, D’Onta Foreman would be the guy. He is the kind of running back who loves to drive through tacklers, although he is patient enough to realize when utilizing his athleticism would work better. His size reminds you of Fournette, although he doesn’t quite recognize how he should attack a defense as quickly as Fournette does. He could certainly stand to sharpen the mental side of his game, which is why the Bengals can probably trade down in the second round if he is their target.
**5. Joe Mixon (Oklahoma)
There might not be a more talented running back in this year’s draft than Joe Mixon. However, despite his rare speed and athleticism, his draft stock is heavily weighed down by character concerns. After punching a woman in 2014, and seeing the video, which was released in December, many teams are steering clear of him. Some have reportedly even taken him off their boards all together. In light of that issue, it seems like his best bet would have been to stay in college for at least another year while proving he can avoid making poor decisions.
But, his 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground paired with his 32 catches for 449 yards and five touchdowns in the air, in a two-back system at Oklahoma, shows that, as far as talent goes, he is as ready for the NFL as he will ever be. Any team that takes a chance on him is taking a huge risk on his character and decision making, but could be rewarded with a truly great player if he can keep all of his headlines on the football field.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10:
6. Matthew Dayes, NC State
7. *Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
8. Jamaal Williams, BYU
9. *James Conner, Pittsburgh
10. Corey Clement, Wisconsin
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.