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Bengals roster breakdown, 90-in-90: now or never for Jeremy Hill

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After gaining cult status in 2014, Hill has looked lost for the last two years and he knows the clock is ticking with his replacement already on the roster

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Minicamp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In just two years, Jeremy Hill went from being Rudi Johnson’s natural heir and the thunder to Giovani Bernard’s lightning to becoming an afterthought and possibly being replaced by another second-round pick. Life comes at you pretty fast in the NFL. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, the 24-year-old running back will try to prove he’s still the same player who almost singlehandedly took the Bengals to the playoffs in 2014.

Jeremy Hill

Position: Running back

Height: 6’1”

Weight: 235 pounds

College: Louisiana State University

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Experience: Fourth-year player

Draft status: Second-round pick, 55th overall in 2014

Cap status

Hill is entering the final year of his $3,753,602 contract with the Bengals. It includes a $1,049,892 signing bonus, $1,640,510 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $938,401. In 2017, Hill will earn a base salary of $881,855 and a workout bonus of $50,000, while carrying a cap hit of $1,194,328 and a dead cap value of $262,473, according to Spotrac.

Background

After Cincinnati added Bernard in the 2013 draft, they felt the need to add a stronger player to complement him and help restore a running game that was painful to watch with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a starter. And boy, did he play his part. Hill was outstanding in his first year in the NFL and took the league by a storm, rushing for 1,124 yards and 9 touchdowns at a 5.1 clip in only eight starts - second highest average after Justin Forsett. And not only was he exciting to watch and uber productive, he also saved a Bengals offense that was in shambles after losing Marvin Jones Jr. and Tyler Eifert early on in the season due to injuries.

But while the average career of football players is the shortest in professional sports in America, it’s even tougher for running backs, who are almost always replaced by cheap draftees once they’re set to earn good money. Only truly great players like Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell or LeSean McCoy get big contracts. As they often say, it’s very easy to find a running back in the draft and that is what the Bengals did this season in the second-round, selecting Oklahoma standout Joe Mixon.

To be fair, there were always some flaws to Hill’s game even when he was great in 2014, mainly his fumbling issues, as he coughed up the football five times that year and then he turned it over to the Steelers in the final moments of the team’s Wild Card game in January 2016. He was also benched after fumbling twice against the Chargers early on that season. Many believe as he tried to improve taking care of the ball, he lost a step and hasn’t been able to regain his old form. He just hasn’t been the same decisive one-cut bruiser he was in his first season in Cincinnati and the Bengals offense went from tailoring the scheme to his strengths - like using fullback Ryan Hewitt more often, to becoming a juggernaut behind Andy Dalton’s MVP-like campaign. Hill barely fit in there anymore as he was never great running off the shotgun and with him on the field they were very predictable.

Last season only a few monster games against weak running defense like the Browns and Broncos helped his average increase a tiny bit, but by the end of the year it was clear he wasn’t even the second best running back on the roster, as Rex Burkhead finished the year with a killer game in his place. The offensive line also played its part in Hill’s lack of productivity, but the current Patriot got much better results rushing behind the same guys.

Roster chances

The former rushing touchdown leader in 2015 is now the Bengals’ security blanket in case Bernard can’t hold up or Mixon takes some time to adapt at the NFL level. Hill will finish his rookie deal and be probably gone after this year. The Bengals’ offense is loaded with young talent and it’s very hard for any team to have three runners involved. Hill is a one-trick pony right now and Bernard is light years ahead of him as a blocker.

We’ve seen that even established talents like Latavius Murray fail to command big figures in free agency and their teams let them go because they know it’s likely their production can be replaced at a fraction of the cost.

Hill’s said the right things about Mixon coming in and he’s also looked willing to fight hard for his starting job, but in the end, he’s just trying to prove he still has a spot in the NFL. Hill is sure to make the roster, but his playing time is likely to diminish between Week 1 and Week 17 before he departs Cincinnati next offseason.

Roster odds: 99.9 percent.