One of the major reasons why the Bengals sprung for Giovani Bernard last year at the top of the second round was his versatility. Adding a speed dimension to the running game was a must, yes, but having a player with the ability to catch the football as a running back on a consistent basis is something that the Bengals haven't had since Kenny Watson or Chirs Perry. If you want to look at long-term success in that aspect, then you would probably have to go all the way back to James Brooks.
Bernard didn't disappoint as a rookie in this area, having 53 receptions (on 71 targets), 514 yards and three touchdowns. He added 695 yards and five more touchdowns on the ground. Really, the only thing that kept Bernard from winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award was the fact that he had limited touches and took a back seat to BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Even though the Bengals took another back in the second round just one year later in LSU's Jeremy Hill, Bernard still seems primed for an increase in touches and indications are that he will be the "starter" even though Hill should see significant carries as well. The Bengals seem to want to find a way to get both guys on the field at the same time. How? Perhaps by lining up Bernard in the slot as a receiver a bit more frequently in 2014.
New running backs coach, Kyle Caskey intimated as much to The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner, Jr. recently.
"We want to do more with him because he can do that," running backs coach Kyle Caskey said. "It's not just put him in the slot. We want him everywhere on the field. Make people guess where's he at. You have to make a decision to either play the run or play the pass. What do you do when he's on the field? He's a lot like Reggie Bush where you have to be aware at all times."
"We didn't do it as much as we would liked to have," Caskey said.
"Put him in the backfield and do whatever you want, you don't have to pigeonhole yourself into he's a running back. He's smart enough to handle it all."
Obviously visions of Reggie Bush are enough to make Bengals fans drool at the possibilities--especially now that the Bengals have other bigger backs in the stable to complement Bernard's strengths. If you're wondering how Gio feels about it, he seems to be pretty excited:
"If I get the ball I'm always happy," he said. "I can't complain to be able to make a play no matter where it's from, no matter if it's in the backfield or if it's out wide."
"It's almost easier from the slot," Bernard said. "Think about it; if you're in the backfield you have to run five yards or six and a half or seven to get to the line of scrimmage and then you've got to push up five more yards, you've got to get through all of the crowd and you've got to check all of the protections. So it's almost a lot easier when you're on the slot where all you have to do is just run five yards to get to your spot."
"At the end of the day it's just about catching the ball and making positive yards. I've been able to catch the ball out of the backfield. I know it's from a different spot, but at the end of the day it's still just catching."
It has to be refreshing to see more of the team-first mentality here and if this game plan is used correctly, it could become a great safety blanket for Andy Dalton. You saw him rely on it last year with those 71 targets to Bernard, which was a role similar to what Andrew Hawkins did before he was injured for much of 2013. With his departure to Cleveland, the Bengals may be tinkering with the idea that Bernard could do some of the same things that Hawkins brought to the offense. It could also act as a decoy for running plays to Hill when both backs are on the field.