This is the golden age of running backs.
Scratch that. This is the golden age of teams using running backs.
In the current landscape of the NFL, the value in running backs lies within their competence in the passing game. The top running backs don’t carry the ball 20-25 times a game anymore, but a few do end up with around that number of total touches.
Joe Mixon was one of the seven running backs in the league to average over 20 touches a game in the first two weeks of play. Even after injuring his knee in last Thursday’s game against the Ravens, Mixon carried the load for the Bengals and turned in a decent performance. He’s currently fourth in the league amongst running backs with 236 yards from rushing yards, and he’s dominated the team share of touches at the position.
Mixon’s injury did require minor surgery and he will be out at the very least for one game, but he most likely will not dress for either of the Bengals’ NFC South matchups against the Panthers and Falcons these next two weeks. Even if he does end up playing in the Falcons game, they will probably prepare for it as if he won’t.
Enter Giovani Bernard.
With their 22-year old starter sidelined, they will now turn to Bernard, the 26-year old veteran in the running back room carry the load. But will he have the same opportunities as Mixon had in the first two games?
One of the pleasant surprises from this past preseason was the effectiveness of Tra Carson, an undrafted free agent from 2016 who stuck with the organization on the practice squad and through injury up to this morning. A stellar August earned him a spot over Brian Hill, and he’s been the one active on game days over fourth-round rookie Mark Walton, who had the exact opposite preseason as Carson.
Unfortunately for Carson, he tore a hamstring in practice on Monday and has now been waived. His replacement is Thomas Rawls, who was brought in by the Bengals for a workout yesterday and has now signed with the team.
Rawls is now the wildcard in this situation, as Bernard has rarely been asked to be a workhorse in the Bengals offense. In 73 career games, Bernard has only touched the ball more than 20 times in a game seven times, and only once after the 2015 season. That game was the Bengals’ Christmas Eve victory over the Lions last season when Bernard rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries and added on 52 yards receiving on seven receptions.
Bernard is talented enough to do more than he’s typically asked, he just never was given the chance to do so long-term. He was drafted as a complimentary back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2013, maintained that same role for three years behind Jeremy Hill, and still behind Mixon since the middle of last season. Bernard was always the third-down back because of his receiving skills, but he’s developed into the team’s best pass-blocking back, which only enhances his resume for his role.
What we do know is that a more even distribution of snaps is ahead of us based off the team wanting to bring in some temporary outside talent and then acting on that in the signing of Rawls. They seem to have their three backs set for at least this week, as Mixon will be the one inactive.
Regardless, nearly every team is deep at is running back, and it’s not just because the talent at the position is in great supply. Production at the position has evolved to the point where teams are maximizing on minimal investment. The leading rusher in the NFL through two weeks? Phillip Lindsay: an undrafted rookie out of Colorado.
In fantasy football, some say that “running backs don’t matter”, because you can find successful ones nearly anywhere. In reality, the narrative isn’t that far off.
Now this doesn’t imply the Bengals aren’t at some extent worse off without Mixon, who has looked like he’s coming into his own this season. He’s a special player who can do a multitude of things from various alignments. But the Bengals, like most teams in the league, can survive a hit at the running back position. And odds are Bernard will be used as the main bandaid in Mixon’s absence.
Even though we don’t know how much Rawls, and therefore Walton will also be involved, Bernard has shown he can step up when he’s needed, especially against Carolina and Atlanta. Back in 2014 when the Bengals played the two teams last, Bernard combined for 326 yards from scrimmage off 54 touches in the two games.
They may not need that much work from Bernard, but they’ll survive with him leading the way in the Bengals backfield.