The Bengals’ running back position is in a weird place heading into free agency and the NFL Draft. Given the continued struggles of Jeremy Hill and the impending free agent status of late-season breakout star Rex Burkhead, the only remaining, reliable running back left on the roster is Giovani Bernard. Unfortunately, he has lost playing time due to injury in each of the last three seasons, so even his status is a little questionable, especially as the latest injury is an ACL tear. If Burkhead does not return in 2017, the running back position becomes one of the Bengals’ biggest needs, and the team seems to already know what it’s looking for.
“Only thing that matters is production of that guy in the offense that you are trying to run,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “What you are trying to run goes right into the skills of the players you have in it. If a guy can be productive and be an above-average player, I’ll take any kind of guy. Doesn’t matter. We are flexible. Whatever guys you put into the system, the system adjusts to them.“
That said, as flexible as the Bengals are willing to be, the team does have certain preferences when it comes to players they want to add to the roster.
“I’d like to have a guy that has a receiver element. Along with being able to tote the ball and be a four-plus a carry type guy that has the breakaway speed,” Zampese said. “There’s a lot of combinations. Guys that break tackles, there are smaller guys, you’d like to have combinations of that, but you would like to have a guy that can break tackles as well for your sets and be multiple that way.“
If there is one running back in this year’s draft that embodies the elements Zampese discusses, it’s Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara. In addition to his 1,294 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground in his two seasons with the Volunteers, he recorded 683 receiving yards and seven touchdowns through the air. His versatility is his calling card and could easily strike the Bengals’ interest.
“Catching out of the backfield. My special teams, the special teams component I bring to the game. Things like that,” Kamara said at the Combine when asked about the versatility that he brings to the table. “A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams and me being able to catch out of the backfield and being comfortable lining up in the slot.”
With only two years of experience and 284 all-purpose touches, Kamara isn’t as battle tested as some of the other top running backs in this year’s draft. But, durability is always a concern for running backs, who typically have short-lived careers in the NFL. The fact that Kamara’s has less experience also means he has more tread on his tires. Given Bernard’s issues with playing a full 16-game season, that could be extremely appealing for a Bengals team that needs a strong work-horse running back to carry the load.
“I talked about that a little bit with teams and it’s honestly a good thing, the limited amount of carries,” Kamara said. “Of course they wanted to see more production, but the limited amount of carries, I mean, save it for the league.”
In addition to being a versatile talent at an important position to the team, targeting Kamara allows the Bengals to wait until the second round to select a running back so the team can select one of the explosive linebackers or defensive ends who are sure to be top-10 picks in this year’s draft. That strategy fits with the Bengals’ drafting history at running back, as the team hasn’t selected a running back in the first round since Chris Perry in 2004. Before that it was Ki-Jana Carter in 1995. Both players are considered two of the biggest busts in franchise history, while guys like Ickey Woods, Corey Dillon, Bernard, and Jeremy Hill were all selected in the second round.
“(Backs) are found all over the place, but there is a reason guys get picked before others. It’s not 100 percent, but there are reasons,” Zampese said. “Because a team thinks he can be a starter and tote the ball and withstand punishment and be an explosive player.”
Versatility, durability, and production are what the Bengals look for in a running back. All of those criteria describe Kamara, all of which are on display in this highlight video: