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Bengals running back group among biggest storylines of training camp

Who will be the top back? How will touches be split? Will Boom Williams make the final roster?

Cincinnati Bengals v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals’ backfield will be as loaded as it’s been in recent memory when the 2017 season begins.

The running back group will likely see Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and second-round rookie Joe Mixon featured in some combination, perhaps in multiple ways throughout the season. One week, it could be Hill and Bernard splitting touches, only to have Mixon be the bell-cow back the very next week. All three are more than talented enough to earn heavy workloads, and we should expect a steady dose of them all throughout the season.

Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese isn’t worrying about how he’ll divide up touches. All he cares about right now is getting everyone in pads and on the practice field, where everything will ultimately work itself out.

“That will work itself out by the time we get there. I’m not even worried about that,” Zampese told “We have plenty of time to find out what each guy is going to be in pads and where they’re at when we get there. I’m sure it will be a mix of all guys because they’re all worthy.”

Zampese is smart to not have any preconceived notions going into camp, and fans would be wise to follow suit.

“I’m not going to hamstring any of those guys on time or this or that because a lot of different things happen,” said Zampese. “A lot of surprises happen. Gio’s already (good) to go, maybe Joe’s got it right from the get go, we don’t know yet. We haven’t put pads on yet. We’ll get all those things answered as we go. I’m really excited to see what the answers to those questions are.”

You could make a good argument for running back being the hardest position to crack on the Bengals’ roster this year with those three locked into their roster sports, as well as Cedric Peerman likely to secure his spot as the special teams captain.

That’s going to make it hard for an outside guy like Boom Williams to make the roster, but the Kentucky running back is looking to do just that as an undrafted free agent. The former All-SEC standout was widely viewed as the Bengals’ best undrafted free agent signing this year, being that many draft experts projected him to be selected in the Round 5-6 range of this year’s NFL Draft.

But in the NFL, no one cares about how you did in college or high Mel Kiper had you on his big board. All that matters now is producing, something Zampese wants to see from Williams in camp.

A big thing that Williams must learn is how to take a handoff and go, not dance around in the backfield and make college defenders miss. He’s not doing that in the NFL, so Zampese wants to see some more decisiveness going forward.

“I want to see him execute,” Zampese told WHAS 11. “I want to see him learn the offense to where he doesn’t hesitate, and he can play fast, and do it right every time.”

Even if Williams has a good showing out of the backfield, he must make a big impact on special teams to earn a roster spot on this team. Whether it be as a returner, coverage man or blocker, Williams has to show he can be respectable enough in this area for the Bengals to even consider letting him have Peerman’s roster spot.

“He’s obviously very versatile,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said of Williams. “He’s very mobile, he’s very elusive.

“For him to make this team he’s going to have to be put in those (special teams) situations and have to excel in those roles.”

There’s a chance Williams simply outperforms the aging Peerman for his job, though it seems unlikely given the Bengals’ preference to keep proven veterans over unknown rookies, especially ones who contribute on special teams as much as Peerman. Then again, we saw a rising undrafted free agent in Alex Erickson take the incumbent veteran Brandon Tate’s roster spot as a receiver/kick returner. Perhaps Williams can do the same if he shows he can make an impact on special teams while being a playmaker out of the backfield.

All told, Williams’ most likely career trajectory is to begin on the Bengals’ practice squad, unless another team claims him during final roster cuts. Until we see him on a practice field and in live NFL games, the safe bet is on Hill, Mixon, Bernard and Peerman being Cincinnati’s four running backs on the final roster.