Since taking over as the team’s starting quarterback in 2011, Andy Dalton has faced his share of both accolades and criticism. Both have been warranted for respective reasons, but the truth remains that there are aspects of the team that have let him down in critical scenarios.
Take the team’s running game, for example. For the most part, Cincinnati hasn’t been one of the better teams at running the football in Dalton’s tenure.
In fact, “mediocre” may even be an overly-generous term to describe this facet over the past seven seasons.
When they weren’t busy drafting and/or letting valuable linemen go in free agency, the team used some pretty massive resources at the running position. At running back, three second round picks (Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard) and a free agent (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) were added, while five picks in the first four rounds have been used on the offensive line to now go along with a major trade for Cordy Glenn this offseason.
In the Dalton era, the Bengals have ranked 19th, 18th, 18th, 6th, 13th, 13th and 31st in rushing yards per game. This lack of production is rather staggering, given some of the talent the team has amassed in an effort to better this area of their team.
Now, with Jeremy Hill signing with the Patriots, the Bengals are banking on Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard—two of those aforementioned big investments—to carry their team in 2018. While their talent is undeniable, questions might still be lingering with the position group.
The issues facing the team:
Injuries at the position: It’s a pretty solid situation for the Bengals in 2018 as they head into the season with Mixon and Bernard as their primary backs. Both are productive and multi-dimensional and should do well behind a revamped Bengals’ offensive line this year.
Still, aside from injuries being part of the wear and tear all backs face, both of these guys have had issues in this regard. Mixon missed two games with a concussion as a rookie and exited the Week 13 loss to the Steelers early from the ailment.
Meanwhile, Bernard has had a number of issues, large and small in severity, in his own respective career. He had a concussion in the 2015 Wild Card game, tore his ACL late in 2016 and missed three other games in 2014.
Getting both guys significant touches and allowing Mixon to be the workhorse, as Marvin Lewis has hinted at this offseason, is a strategically sound approach. However, with Jeremy Hill now off to New England, a productive backup runner might need to be considered.
General depth and special teams contribution questions: As mentioned above, Hill is gone to the Patriots. It’s a move that is beneficial for the three parties involved, but still leaves a roster hole that has yet to be filled in Cincinnati. Mixon has good size and power, but the Bengals might still be missing their “big back” for short-yardage situations.
Aside from that, special teams ace, Cedric Peerman, is a free agent and talk of him re-signing with the club has been very quiet. He could be offered an affordable contract after the draft, but it’s essentially Mixon, Bernard and a few undrafted free agents.
Look, we’re not knocking Bryan Hill, Jarveon Williams and/or Tra Carson, but the three of them have combined for 37 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per carry in the NFL (all by Hill). While all of these guys have shown promise, this is an offseason where the Bengals are finally re-evaluating all positions after two straight losing seasons.
Options in the NFL Draft:
The common belief is that the Bengals will address offensive and defensive line as well as running back with their first few picks. Still, with four selections to their name within the first 100 picks of this year’s class, including 11 overall, there is room for the team to get creative.
Granted, unless a Saquon Barkley or Derrius Guice falls into their laps way later than they should, the Bengals won’t be selecting another running back with a high pick this year. However a mid-round talent could very well be in play, especially if the Bengals think he can play special teams.
Some bigger backs who could be available are San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage and Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough. These are backs who fit the Jeremy Hill mold, as more of in-between-the-tackles thumpers. Another really interesting prospect was Guice’s LSU backup, Darrel Williams, who transitioned from fullback and had 820 rushing yards, along with nine touchdowns in 2017.
There are other smaller backs who could help in a variety of ways as well. Ronald Jones of USC leads the way of the quick, slasher backs, but it’ll likely take a second round pick to grab him. That’s too expensive for the Bengals and with what else they need this year.
Non-luxury backs aside from Jones who could provide help on both offense and special teams are Jacksonville State’s Roc Thomas, Phillip Lindsay of Colorado and Dalyn Dawkins of Colorado State. One of these (or another prospect) will likely have to initially cut their teeth on coverage teams to fill in for Peerman, should he not be in the Bengals’ long-term plans.
Available free agents: There are a number of big names still on the open market, but varying questions abound with many of them. DeMarco Murray and Adrian Peterson are the most prominent names on the list, but guys like Terrance West, Alfred Morris and others also pique interest.
It’s a near-certainty that most, if not all of these names will be re-explored after the draft, but some can still provide value of some kind. Morris is a hard-nosed guy who had a couple of nice seasons grinding out tough yards and could be a nice band-aid for Cincinnati should injuries strike again.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you’re looking at it), Peerman and 34-year-old Darren Sproles are two of the best available guys who can assist on special teams. In a year where the Bengals have explored more outside options than usual, might they go back to a guy they are comfortable with this offseason?
Do you think the Bengals need to re-invest in the running back position with some decent capital this offseason?
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