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What to expect from the Bengals’ running backs in 2018

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Even though the Bengals are undergoing a bit of transition at running back, there is still a glut of talent in the group.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Though many positions on the Bengals’ roster is being questioned in this very important offseason, running back isn’t one necessarily under the microscope.

Since 2013, the Bengals have used three second-round picks on the position, as well as another fourth rounder in 2018.

It’s not a big surprise, given the fact that the team relied on a myriad of backs since 2009, but reliance on a single back as “the workhorse” hasn’t been the M.O. under Marvin Lewis in recent years.

What should we expect from the position in 2018?

Comings and goings:

Departures: Jeremy Hill

Additions: Mark Walton (2018, round 4), Quinton Flowers (UDFA)

The Cast:

Starters: Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Ryan Hewitt (H-Back)

Rotational players: Mark Walton

Grinding for a roster spot/special teams: Jarveon Williams, Brian Hill, Tra Carson, Quinton Flowers

Though he had an outstanding rookie season back in 2014, Hill’s decline in production paved the way for his departure. Joe Mixon will get the lion’s share of the carries in 2018, but Giovani Bernard will get also receive a good amount of touches as well.

Walton is a roster lock too, but it’s unclear exactly what his role will be—particularly on offense. The Bengals usually carry four running backs on their roster, outside of their H-Back/fullback, so Flowers and/or Williams will need to show some sort of special teams prowess.

If you’ve followed the Bengals in the preseason over the past few seasons, you would have seen some underdogs make the club after great in-game summer performances. Flowers is a guy who could kill two birds with one roster stone, but he’ll need to show a lot of upside during the month of August.

2018 outlook:

With Hill gone, Mixon is suddenly propelled into a higher-profile role. And, with a revamped offensive line, the second-year back could have a breakout year with increased touches in 2018. He seems to be responding well, given his shedding of about 10-15 pounds and his ridiculous touchdown catch in the preseason opener.

Meanwhile, Bernard will seemingly maintain the role he has held since joining the Bengals, though he might see a few more touches than last season now that Hill is out of the picture. It’s going to be interesting to see just how much and in what ways Bill Lazor will use Bernard in his first full season as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator.

If the Bengals wish to get cute, in terms of their packages and formations, employing Bernard and Mixon at the same time in a “wishbone-like” formation could be something the team should explore. Even so, Mixon will be used in a couple of different ways, while Bernard will also likely remain a multi-faceted outlet for Andy Dalton.

Believe it or not, this writer believes that Walton will have a bigger impact in Year 1 than some others do. That isn’t to point to ineffectiveness or unavailability of other backs, but rather in Walton’s promise and upside.

Walton entered the first preseason game earlier than expected. After Mixon dazzled everyone with a great touchdown reception and Bernard had a couple of highlight-worthy touches, the rookie came in. Walton had just 13 yards on seven carries, but was also behind a patchwork offensive line, which has continued through the other two preseason games.

However, the real intrigue with this position in the regular season may come in the lead blocker. For years, the Bengals relied upon a stout fullback to lead the way for their talented running backs, but the usage of the position has varied in more recent times.

Hewitt signed a lucrative contract a couple of offseasons ago, and rightfully so, given his skill-set. However, the offense’s usage of his services has been more-than-fickle since that extension.

It’s unclear exactly what Bill Lazor is planning with Hewitt, but the Bengals run the ball effectively with a true fullback in front of the runner. While that’s one of the strengths of Hewitt, one has to wonder if the team isn’t fully utilizing his versatile skill-set.

Regardless, with the additions of Billy Price and Cordy Glenn, Mixon, Bernard and Walton should have increased success this year. We’ll see if the improvements on paper come to fruition this fall.