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Bengals 2017 positional assessment: Running Back

This offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals have some tough decisions to make at running back. Is their current group good enough, or does the team need to grab a big name to push the others in the position group?

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A major aspect in constructing a solid NFL roster lies in assessing positions and adding competition, even when talent is already available. It becomes increasingly difficult for a team when this perceived talent underachieves, causing a re-evaluation of personnel.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, the current state of the team’s running back corps is presenting this very situation. The front office faces some very difficult decisions over the next couple of months, whether it’s in the possibility of losing some valuable, but under-utilized veterans, or the prospect of replacing former talented high picks with other high-ceiling, but unknown quantities.

One of the hardest parts of a coach’s job is the task of replacing a formerly productive player and one you respect on- and off-the-field. The major difference between high school and college to the pros, is the aspect of running your team with more of a business mindset. Obviously, talent is always at the forefront of the decision-making process, but the almighty dollar also pushes teams to make certain moves.

The 2016 season was a disappointment on a variety of fronts for the Bengals, but the inconsistency of the run game was a factor in the team’s 6-9-1 finish. Jeremy Hill had a bit of a bounce-back year from a tough 2015 campaign, but the game-breaking ability he showed as a rookie wasn’t anywhere near as prevalent as it was in his 2014, while Giovani Bernard showed his versatility once again, although his year was ended early with a torn ACL in Week 11.

So, is this offseason about surrounding those two players with more help up front, do they need to tweak the offensive scheme, or is it time for a new face to get the lion’s share of the touches in 2017? We discussed these issues on this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider.

Uncertainty with who they currently have:

If 2016 was a big year in Hill’s career trajectory, this upcoming one is gigantic. It’s the final year of his rookie deal and the one where he remains relatively cheap at just $1.2 million. While Hill improved in three critical areas last year in yards per carry (3.8), fumbles (zero) and chunk plays (eight runs of 20-plus yards) from 2015, he still has yet to regain his explosive rookie form. Though the team reportedly thinks they can “fix” him this year, it’s possible that 2014 was the best we’ve seen of him at the pro level.

Giovani Bernard remains a viable weapon in multiple aspects of the offense, but he is coming off of major knee surgery. It’s entirely possible that he’ll be ready to go as the 2017 season begins, but will he need an additional year to get back to form as Geno Atkins did with his torn knee? With Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead possibly leaving in free agency, is it wise for the Bengals to rely on Bernard and Hill with questions about their own futures?

Burkhead had a strong finish to the season with a 119-yard, two touchdown performance against the stout Ravens run defense, but is that enough for the team to pin major hopes on this year? In a very short time he appeared to be the hardest and most able runner of the Bengals’ 2016 group, while also remaining versatile, but it could be a risk for Cincinnati to give him a lucrative contract—especially with intriguing options in this year’s draft class.

Peerman is a very valuable special teams player and is solid glue in the team’s locker room, but he should be easily attainable. While coaches and fans have the utmost respect for the veteran, is he worth taking up a roster spot at a position that may need as many able offensive players possible.

Aside from Burkhead and Peerman, there doesn’t appear to be too many realistic or logical options in free agency. Sure, Le’Veon Bell, Latavius Murray and Eddie Lacy are all interesting options, but they’ll be expensive and their current employers will likely make big pushes to retain them. For those reasons, it seems like the NFL Draft is where the Bengals should look to add more talent.

The Draft’s big names:

There are a lot of polarizing, yet talented runners in this year’s draft crop. LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook top the list, while Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon also provide interesting possibilities. However, with a lot of different needs the team is facing this offseason, some of those first round talents might be a luxury pick in a year where the team can’t just go with the best-player-available strategy.

By now, most fans of the college and pro game know about the issues with Mixon. Though he’s incredibly explosive, his 2014 assault of a female is a major cloud hanging over his head. He’ll have some major questions to answer at the NFL Combine, and regardless of how he tests in the drills, he will still likely be a day three pick because of the issues.

With Fournette, Cook and McCaffrey, the question is if either are transcendent backs who can transform a franchise. We’ve seen players who have done this in the form of Adrian Peterson, Bell and a handful of others, but we’ve also seen a top pick like Trent Richardson totally cripple a franchise.

Somewhere in the middle sits recent picks like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Gurley was a star rookie, but a lack of surrounding talent caused him to succumb to the dreaded “sophomore slump”. Elliott had a breakout year in 2016, but he ran behind what’s widely-regarded as the best offensive line in the NFL. There is no doubt he’s talented, but he may be more of a product of the big guys who block in front of him.

So, the question the Bengals need to answer if they are thinking of taking a top back this year is if they can be successful regardless of offensive line play or because of it. This is an important factor with Cincinnati’s group having such a poor 2016 season after being rated up there with the likes of the Cowboy’s front.

Questions on the line:

Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth are impending free agents, while Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, the two top picks of the 2015 class, are struggling to find their NFL footing. Not only was the group pretty awful at protecting Andy Dalton last year, but inconsistencies in the run game were prevalent.

If the team loses one or both of their best offensive linemen to another team this year, Cincinnati just might have the rationale to stand on with eschewing the picking of a good lineman over a back. Most NFL minds believe that the best way to build a franchise is from the inside-out (i.e. find a quarterback, protect him and rush the opposition’s passer), but teams like the Steelers have once again become a powerhouse by loading up at their skill positions.

Many believe that the only way a pick like Fournette or Cook at No. 9 makes sense for the Bengals is if they reload and/or re-tool the offensive line in free agency. If they don’t one of those players could end up being more like Richardson instead of Peterson.

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