Joe Mixon had an excellent year running the football in 2018. He is a patient runner who can find cutback lanes in zone schemes, but has the power to convert in short yardage situations. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, but was not trusted in pass protection last season.
That is where Giovani Bernard came in handy. Bernard lacks size, but is a shifty back with speed and is a talented pass catcher. He was always on the field at the end of the game, when it mattered most because of his skill as a pass blocker.
Both Mixon and Bernard are skilled backs, but they possess different sets of skills. Bernard’s ability to protect the quarterback sets him apart while Mixon (who is 6-1 220 compared to Bernard’s 5-9 205) is more of the workhorse.
When Mixon missed some time last season, the Bengals struggled because Bernard could not do the things that the team had been asking of Mixon. At the same time, with Bernard out of the lineup, Mixon struggled to fill his role.
That is why in the 2019 NFL Draft the Bengals selected not one, but two running backs.
First, they took Trayveon Williams from Texas A&M. Williams is the same size as Bernard and despite that perceived disadvantage, he was actually used as a workhorse for the Aggies in 2018.
Williams exceeded 2,000 yards from scrimmage on 271 carries and 27 receptions; finding the end zone a total of 19 times as well. He is also perhaps the best pass protector in the draft, and coming from Texas A&M, he has familiarity with the pass-blocking schemes new offensive line coach Jim Turner favors.
29 picks later, Cincinnati selected Rodney Anderson from Oklahoma. Playing for the Sooners is not the only thing Anderson has in common with Mixon. Anderson shares Mixon’s size and ability to run for power. He is also patient and sees cutbacks on zone runs. He can catch balls out of the backfield but struggles in pass protection.
The Bengals realize that Mixon and Bernard both play important roles and that neither can truly fill in the other’s shoes, so they went out and got a backup for each. Think of it like this: Mixon is RB1a and Bernard is RB1b. Both will play a role in games, but if one goes down, the other’s role will not change substantially.
Instead, if Mixon has to miss some time they will call on their RB2a, Anderson. If Bernard can not go on a given week, then RB2b, Williams, will get the call.
This shows that the Bengals understand their roster and that just because two players play the same position, doesn’t mean they can do the same things. It also may point to an increased role for Bernard this season. Perhaps Mixon and Bernard will be on the field together in a Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara style, with one lined up out of the backfield.
One can only hope that the Bengals will make moves like this that result in their best players on the field at the same time.