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Bengals facing many questions at running back in 2017

Whether it’s injuries, pending free agents or underachievement, the Cincinnati Bengals have a lot to figure out in the offensive backfield this offseason.

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Back in 2014, the Bengals seemed to have one of the deepest and most talented groups at running back. With the versatile Giovani Bernard, a rookie who took the league by storm that season in Jeremy Hill, and a young but mostly unknown Rex Burkhead, the long-term outlook at the position seemed bright.

But, injuries, lack of proper usage and overall underachievement have dropped the position group among the NFL ranks. Bernard still remains a viable weapon, but many have soured on Hill, as he has become little more than a solid goal line running back. Two other valuable backup running backs are facing free agency in Burkhead and Cedric Peerman, pointing to a potential second consecutive offseason of major offensive upheaval.

When looking at the current situation at the position, the Bengals may have a sudden pressing need at running back, especially if personnel losses occur once again this offseason. What should the Bengals’ plan be at running back in 2017— whether it’s in keeping the current cast together or in collecting new faces?

Current issues at the position:

While most folks are pleased with Bernard as a receiver, runner and unheralded pass protector, he tore his ACL in Week 11 against the Bills. While modern medicine has helped get players back to their normal selves in less than a year, Cincinnati could be looking at Bernard missing time as he recovers—especially if there is some sort of setback. Some projections have him back by Week 1, but it’s too early to know right now when Bernard will be ready to play.

Fans and coaches don’t seem very pleased with Hill currently, even though he improved on his fumbling issues from the previous two seasons. The fourth-year back is coming to a crossroads in his career. Is he ever going to get back to the dominant player we saw in the second half of 2014, or is he nothing more than a short-yardage back who is effective at the goal line?

Regardless of what happens to the players who have been behind them on the depth chart this offseason, can these two be counted on for significant carries in 2017, given their respective issues?

What they face in free agency:

After a 119-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort against the Ravens in the season finale, Burkhead enters free agency with momentum. While his double-threat skill set fits Cincinnati’s scheme well, the fear is that he might bolt for a more lucrative contract and prominent role elsewhere.

Given what Burkhead does on offense, the Ravens and Patriots seem to be good fits for him, though the Patriots seem pretty set at the position. But with a prominent role and big contract, it’s easy to see how No. 33 could be drawn elsewhere in free agency.

As if possibly losing Burkhead wasn’t enough, Cincinnati is also looking at Cedric Peerman joining Burkhead as an unrestricted free agent. While Peerman doesn’t provide much in the stat columns, he’s widely-known as the glue in the Bengals’ special teams unit. But, Peerman should be much easier to retain and it should happen before free agency begins.

An offseason losing both Peerman and Burkhead would be both painful and force the team’s hand to add new talent, either in the NFL Draft or free agency.

Possible replacements:

If the Bengals lose both Burkhead and Peerman this offseason, there is a trio of high-profile backs they could go after. Le’Veon Bell, who wants to remain with the Steelers, tops the list as a pipe dream, while Latavius Murray and Eddie Lacy are two other interesting options set to hit free agency. The rest of the options are mostly has-beens or guys with minimal experience. But, given the Bengals rarely make a splash in free agency and the overall risk of grabbing veterans at this specific position, it doesn’t seem likely that Cincinnati would do anything of note with outside running back free agents in March.

On a recent episode of The Orange and Black Insider, we discussed LSU standout Leonard Fournette and what would happen if he fell to the Bengals. Versatile Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is actually ahead of Fournette on some experts’ boards, so it will be interesting to see where these two are selected. Ezekiel Elliott’s breakout rookie campaign has caused teams to re-think the notion of not taking backs high, but we all know he’s running behind an All-Star offensive line.

Depending on who stays and who leaves, preferences in the draft may vary. Interesting big guys who should be available after rounds one and two are Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, the Longhorns’ D’Onta Foreman and James Conner from Pitt. There is also a slew of versatile and niche backs who should be available in the middle rounds. One guy who is particularly interesting is San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, who broke the all-time NCAA record for career rushing yards this year.

What’s the plan if they re-sign Burkhead?

There is a chance that Cincinnati brings Burkhead back, as Marvin Lewis stated the team’s desire to do so shortly after Burkhead’s strong finale. After such a tumultuous offseason preceding a severely disappointing 2016 season, it’s logical for the Bengals to supply Andy Dalton with capable weapons with whom he’s comfortable.

Setting aside questions about what Burkhead’s second contract should look like, the issue then becomes what the depth chart looks like with Burkhead, Hill and Bernard. Was Burkhead’s performance against the Ravens a flash-in-the-pan, or is he truly worthy of starting? And, if so, does that mean he should supplant Hill? These questions become particularly more interesting if Bernard ends up missing a couple of regular season games or landing on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start the year.

What should the Bengals’ plan be with the running back position this offseason?

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