Recently there has been speculation (and perhaps some wishful thinking) about the prospect of the Bengals trading running back Jeremy Hill. This isn’t going to happen. Going into the 2017 season, Hill’s draft stock has never been lower due to a combination of his recent performance, the incoming running back class, and the fact that Hill is in the last year of his rookie contract.
Hill’s Recent Performance History
Despite a stellar rookie season and nose for the end zone, Hill’s more recent lack of production will limit potential trade partners. Hill, drafted by the Bengals in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft has had his ups and downs with the team. On the one hand he has been a touchdown machine, netting 29 touchdowns since he entered the league, 9.66 touchdowns per season – a higher average than Jerome Bettis (7 per year), Priest Holmes (7.81 per year), and many other running back legends. These numbers clearly demonstrate Hill’s ability to score.
However, touchdowns don’t tell the entire story. Hill has demonstrated ball security issues throughout his career. In both his first and second seasons in the league he committed four fumbles, meaning he fumbled on 1.75% of his carries in those years. These issues even resulted in Marvin Lewis’ intermittent benching of Hill. He has also coughed up the ball in big games, most notably at the end of the 2016 Wild Card game (trigger warning).
Granted, Hill has always handled his ball security issues with perspective and maturity.
“Football, there's life lessons every day,” Hill said after last year’s playoff fumble. “You can have problems and you can fall short and you can run from them, and it's going to catch up to you. You've just got to take it head on and take care of it and move forward. That's what I'm going to do."
And when he was benched for fumbling twice against the Chargers in 2015 he admitted it was “an issue” that “has to get fixed."
This past season, Hill did fix this aspect of his game and he didn’t fumble the ball once. It’s unclear what sparked the change, but whatever it was, it worked. Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than 16 games without fumbling to shed this scarlet letter in the eyes of potential trade suitors.
Maybe more importantly, Hill simply hasn’t been able to repeat the magic of his first year in the league. In his first year, he ran for 1,124 yards on 222 carries and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Since then, he has averaged 3.7 yards per carry, boosted by bi-annual games against the Browns. In 2014, Hill looked like the future of the Bengals’ running back group, but now he just looks like one more problem the Bengals need to resolve before they can make the leap.
Hill’s penchant for putting the ball on the ground and inability to rediscover his rookie brilliance will surely scare off most trade partners. Those teams who might want to take a chance on Hill likely wouldn’t be willing to part with enough current talent or draft picks to make it worth the Bengals’ while.
The Incoming Running Back Class
The hype surrounding the incoming running back class is palpable. The potential for such great, young running backs to come from the draft will lead those teams who are in need of a running game to forgo trading for a veteran in the hopes of snagging the next Ezekiel Elliott. In fact the Bengals could realistically use a high draft pick on one of these prospects, and some are advocating for just that. In recent years, teams have been able to find running back talent in all rounds of the draft and undrafted free agency who go on to become great NFL players. In fact, in this year’s Super Bowl the top three running backs on each team weren't drafted before round 3 in their respective drafts and there are two undrafted players among that group. So, teams don’t need to look to experienced sub-par players to fill out their running back groups.
Here is Sports Illustrated’s ranking of the incoming running back class:
Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,765 yards in his final season at FSU. Leonard Fournette has been on pretty much every one’s radar since he started at LSU. In 2015, Christian McCaffrey 3,250 all-purpose yardage, breaking a record previously held by Barry Sanders. This list doesn’t even include the now-pariah Joe Mixon, whose physical prowess may just be enough to outweigh his garbage personality in the eyes of some teams. (See: Tyreek Hill.)
It’s possible that every one of the running backs on the list above will be drafted within the first four rounds. A team is more likely to go for a young back to inject life into the ground game than to make a risky trade on a known, and arguably milquetoast, commodity such as Hill. Add to all of this the fact that the careers of NFL running continue to get shorter, that just means that teams will be more likely to want the fresh-legged rookie, rather than Hill.
Hill’s Contract Year
The final thing that deserves mentioning is that Hill is in a contract year. I don’t bring this up to say that the Bengals should keep Hill around because he’s going to play harder to up his free agency stock - nothing has ever indicated that Hill lacks competitive spirit. It’s worth noting that whoever would be trading for Hill would be assuming his current contract. Hill isn’t exactly getting paid Adrian Peterson money right now, but with one year left on the contract, whichever team receives him will see Hill enter free agency quite quickly.
Teams sign one-season “prove it” deals all the time. However, those tend to come from negotiating in free agency as opposed to via trades. Furthermore, Hill is more valuable to the Bengals than the draft pick or player with which another team would be willing to part. At best, the Bengals would get a sixth or seventh-round pick for Hill, and teams would be unlikely to mortgage a future prospect for one year with a running back with stats like Hill’s.
The Bengals are better off keeping Hill on the roster for the final year of his rookie deal, and utilizing his ability to get into the endzone, if nothing else. Not only will the trade partners be few, the potential consideration for the trade won’t exceed the value Hill already brings to the Bengals. Maybe 2017 will be the year that Hill finally repeats his rookie performance and by this time next year we will all be clamoring for the Bengals to re-sign him instead of hoping he finds a new home. But either way, expect Hill in Bengals stripes next year, because he’s not getting traded.