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Bengals running backs have plenty to prove in 2018

The Bengals’ running backs had a fairly rough season in 2017, and they will have to prove the offensive line is what was standing in the way of their success.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

One of the positions most Bengals fans are excited about heading into the 2018 season is running back. You can’t blame them either.

The Bengals have Joe Mixon entering his second season, Giovani Bernard a full year removed from his ACL tear, and rookie Mark Walton added to the group as a nice change of pace option and special teams weapon.

It appears, however, that some analysts don’t share this excitement. Mike Clay of ESPN actually ranked Cincinnati’s backfield 21st overall out of the 32 teams in the NFL.

Projected unit stats: 335 carries, 1,337 yards, 8 TDs; 88 receptions, 733 yards, 2 TDs

Outlook: Mixon is expected to enter his second season as the team’s feature back, but he’ll need to improve drastically after an inefficient rookie year. Mixon averaged 3.5 YPC (1.7 YAC) and ranked last in PFF’s elusive rating. Bernard helps the team’s ranking, as he’s a terrific receiver and blocker and underrated as a rusher (career 4.2 YPC). He has ranked no lower than 17th at the position in receiving yards during his five pro seasons. Walton, a fourth-round pick out of Miami this year, is a name to watch if Mixon stumbles.

It is fair to say Mixon’s end of season totals don’t inspire a ton of confidence. 3.5 yards per carry isn’t anything to cheer about, but when you look at the context of the numbers you can see a faint bit of light.

The first and most obvious thing working against Mixon last season was his offensive line. You can blame much of the Bengals’ horrific 2017 season on that unit, and running backs especially need an offensive line that can do its job.

There are ways to scheme around having a bad offensive line, but Ken Zampese getting fired after Week 2 says everything you need to know about the Bengals’ scheme last year.

Mixon had become accustomed to shaking off first contact either at the line of scrimmage or even in his own backfield. With the addition of Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Billy Price at center, Mixon should find better running lanes to showcase his abilities.

The other thing working against Mixon last season was Jeremy Hill. Hill didn’t out touch Mixon by any means, but the Bengals would often give Hill a drive and throw off any sort of momentum Mixon was accumulating. And, Hill would start every game, with Marvin Lewis claiming it was so Mixon could learn.

It sometimes would also result in the other team padding their lead because the Bengals’ offense wasting a drive. In the weeks after Hill was put on Injured Reserve, we saw a slightly better Mixon, but also an injured Mixon.

In the seven weeks that Hill started, Mixon only averaged four or more yards per carry twice. In the seven weeks Mixon started (he missed two games due to injury), Mixon averaged four or more yards per carry five times.

It is nice to see Bernard get some love, too. He is one of the most underrated Bengals right now. People forget that he was projected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list in 2017 because of how late in the 2016 season he tore his ACL. Still, he managed to not miss a single game last season. You could also see his numbers improve later in the year. When Mixon went down with a concussion against the Steelers in Week 13, Bernard stepped up in a huge way. He averaged more than five yards per carry in four of the final five weeks (including taking Mixon’s spot in the Steelers game).

Walton won’t have a ton of snaps to work with on offense unless Bill Lazor plans on throwing him out there with Mixon or Bernard. He should have a few touches per game where the Bengals try to get him in open space to showcase his speed. How productive he is with those snaps may determine whether he can carve out a real role for himself.

Most likely, though, he is going to play on special teams and will be the replacement for Bernard when his contract ends after the 2019 season.