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Bengals mailbag: Gio’s 2019 role and the need for an experienced defensive coordinator

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Our faithful had a lot on their minds this week, as Zac Taylor was officially announced. Aside from assembling the rest of his staff, Taylor has a lot of decisions to make on personnel.

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It isn’t just the Cincinnati Bengals’ coaching staff that is in major transition this spring. When a new glut of coaches come into town, it usually signals a forthcoming roster upheaval as well.

One of the more interesting questions we received was by a caller on this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider. The caller wanted to know if Giovani Bernard will/should be on the trading black this season.

It’s a fair question in a couple of ways, really. The most glaring is the down year Bernard had from a statistical standpoint.

Even though he missed four games this year, Bernard had career-lows in rushing attempts (56), rushing yards (211), receptions (35), receiving yards (218), yards per game (35.8), total scrimmage yards (429), yards per touch (4.7), yards per reception (6.2), receiving touchdowns (zero) and longest reception (26 yards). He also had the second-lowest numbers in the personal statistical categories of total touchdowns (three), yards per carry (3.8) and longest rushing gain (23 yards).

Yeesh.

There are a couple of reasons for these dips, injuries aside. If you’re someone who’s in Bernard’s corner, then it’s in the “Bill Lazor effect”.

It became quite clear that as Lazor gained more experience as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, he was in over his head. Sure, it was an uptick from the disaster that was Ken Zampese, but there were times that it almost seemed like Lazor had too many weapons to work with and couldn’t call plays to distribute the ball around.

To be fair to Lazor, the offense was often put into poor positions and the unit did have Cincinnati in a 4-1 position to start the season, but there were still signs of wobbly wheels. Some of the plays called to Bernard in 2018 weren’t even to his respective strengths.

And, say what you’d like about Hue Jackson and Jay Gruden as head coaches, but as Bengals coordinators, they got people involved. In the case of Bernard, he had three consecutive 1,000-yards from scrimmage seasons under both of those guys’ watch.

But, there is also the talent around him at the position and his salary to consider. Joe Mixon ran with the opportunity (did you like that pun?) as the team’s primary back last season, leading the AFC in rushing in just his second professional season. The team also drafted Mark Walton last year, and while his rookie campaign was a disappointment, the previous regime liked his big-play capability.

If you want to take those injuries into account, Bernard has only played a full season three times in his six-year career. He has missed 13 regular season games in the span, though we know wear-and-tear can occur at the position. Still, the Zac Taylor brain trust will have to look at Bernard’s contract, which expires after this year:

Furthermore, Bernard has the 11th-highest salary as a running back in 2019. Comparatively, Mixon, who is still on his rookie contract, is the 28th-highest-paid back next year. With extensions forthcoming for both he and Tyler Boyd on that side of the ball in the near future, there might be a tough decision with Bernard this offseason.

The Rams’ offense only had one running back who made significant contributions in the passing game to the team last year in Todd Gurley. But, sometimes you pay guys for things like potential, leadership and unheralded skill sets. For Bernard, he embodies all three of these things in 2019. To further the point, Los Angeles didn’t have a player on its roster like Bernard behind Gurley.

Taylor will undoubtedly need to lean on some of the veteran stars and mainstays for leadership purposes next season. Getting these guys to buy in what Taylor is selling is critical to early success and Bernard is key to the ensuing transition.

Furthermore, Bernard is a triple-threat player at running back: an able runner, receiver and capable blocker for his size. Having this skill set should translate well in the new offensive system headed up by Taylor and Brian Callahan.

You also have to figure that this offense will be a bit more exciting and multi-dimensional than that of Lazor’s, which bodes well for the Bengals. Since Cincinnati isn’t in a poor salary cap situation (when are they ever?), it would be wise to hang on to Bernard and give him a bigger role in the offense next season.

Plus, with the league’s overall devaluation of running backs, the trade net would likely be very low for a veteran back coming off of arguably his worst season.

*****

When the rumors started about Taylor coming in to The Queen City, reports of established defensive coordinators followed. First, it was Jack Del Rio, then it was Dom Capers who were linked to the Bengals.

Neither ended up materializing.

There are mixed opinions on both guys, particularly Capers, but an experienced right-hand man to fix the defense would be a wise get for Taylor. It was a blueprint laid out by his last boss in L.A., Sean McVay.

Now, the most recent rumors have Taylor looking at a number of guys with a variety of different backgrounds. None of the names bring the clout of, say, a Del Rio.

Aubrey Pleasant is a spark plug and has potential, but he would also signal another hire in Taylor’s “Ol’ Boy’s Club”. Marquand Manuel has Bengal ties, but was let go by Atlanta after a disappointing 2018 season. The other candidates have had success, but it mostly been at the college ranks.

Part of the excitement stemming from the early rumors with the Taylor hire was in the supposed mix of young, innovative minds on offense, mixed with experienced and a grizzled approach on the other side of the ball. An established name on defense could bring instant credibility to a relatively-unproven staff.

The entire youth/inexperience movement could bring about an awesome era in Bengals history, but it comes with risks. There is a solution that lurks in the periphery, though.

Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer mentioned after the Super Bowl that Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan could be on Cincinnati’s radar, should Del Rio and Capers pass on the opportunity. Even though he’s the third New Orleans assistant Taylor has seemingly been interested in (Dennis Allen and Aaron Glenn are the others), he’s had a track record of success.

There are concerns with Nolan, though. Aside from an uninspiring stint as the 49ers head coach, he also has a little bit of a reputation of being difficult to work with under a young gun head coach. Nolan has also done a lot of 3-4 alignments, so some middle round will need to be found in Cincinnati, but he’d bring some solid experience.

If Taylor brings in a guy with little experience, it will, like most of his hires to this point, take an immense amount of blind faith. Don’t forget to cross those fingers, either.

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