The Bengals finally appear ready to upgrade from incumbent Jeremy Hill and, at the very least, should relegate him to more of a backup role going forward. And with Hill set to be a free agent in 2018, the Bengals would be wise to find their long-term answer here this offseason.
It doesn't help that Giovani Bernard is recovering from a torn ACL, which is hard for any running back to come back from and play as well as they did pre-injury. Third-stringer Rex Burkhead is about to hit free agency, and he's had trouble staying healthy in even that role to this point in his career.
There's simply too much talent at this position to not land a back at some point in the draft, and that begins in Round 1 at pick No. 9. There, the Bengals could not have not one, but two running backs available worthy of a top-10 pick. The most obvious is LSU's Leonard Fournette, who looks like the next Adrian Peterson/Ezekiel Elliott/Todd Gurley elite-level back
Fournette would be off the board for sure by No. 9 if not for an injury-plagued 2016 season. He missed five games and gained ‘only' 843 yards and eight scores on 129 carries. That came after he was among the best players in college football in 2015, racking up 953 yards and 22 scores on 300 carries as a sophomore.
With the Bengals holding the No. 9 pick, it's very easy to see a scenario in which they're on the clock and Fournette is sitting there, but there's also a chance a team like the Jaguars (4), Jets (6) or Panthers (8) take him. If that happens, Florida State's Dalvin Cook is another back that's more than worthy of consideration for that pick.
In 13 games for Florida State this season, Cook notched 1,765 yards on 288 carries (6.12 yards per carry) while catching 33 catches for 488 yards and scoring 20 times. He’s FSU’s all-time leading rusher with 4,464 career yards and ranks 11th in NCAA history for rushing yards in a player’s first three seasons.
Cook would be the three-down back Cincinnati has longed for and would be a big upgrade over both Bernard and Hill. Taking Cook at No. 9 is something that the Bengals should also consider if they miss on Fournette.
Some actually think Cook is the better prospect, and SB Nation's latest mock has him going No. 6 to the Jets after Fournette goes No. 5 to the Panthers, who trade up in this mock. CBS Sports ranks Cook the No. 5 overall prospect, ahead of Fournette at No. 9. Draft Wire has Cook ranked as the top back as well.
Needless to say, the Bengals are in a great spot if they choose to address running back with the No. 9 pick.