In recent years, the Bengals have used the offseason to re-sign their core players before they hit free agency and maintain the roster strength they build annually. On Wednesday, the trend continued with the club giving running back Giovani Bernard a three-year deal worth $15.5 million.
With the deal comes emotions about the signing and questions on how well Bernard will do in fulfilling the terms of the contract. While fan opinions about the news have been largely positive, there are a number of facets to consider going forward. Let's analyze some of the big questions about the Bernard extension.
Is Bernard and the running back position worth the money?
Usually the running back position is one that many teams forgo giving a second contract to players for because of the devaluation of the spot in recent years. However, some trends are actually swinging the pendulum back to old school thought, as evidenced by two recent top-five picks being running backs: Trent Richardson and Ezekiel Elliott. When teams do give a running back a second deal beyond their rookie one, it's usually because the player is a generational talent or, someone who can prove to be on the field on any given down.
And, even though he shares carries with Jeremy Hill, Bernard has proven to be a player who can be used on the field for three downs. He has always had the receiving skills and running ability, but it's his pass blocking that has improved over the first three years of his career, making him useful in most offensive situations. He also has the production over the course of his career, even though he and Hill both see a lot of touches. Though an average of about $5 million per years (a top-10 average annual money for the position) seems like a lot to pay a player who splits time, Bernard provides a lot to the Bengals' offense.
Why do the deal now?
Every spring and summer, the Bengals' brain trust identifies their core guys whose contracts are getting close to expiring. Shawn Williams was an early one they knew they could get done with relative ease and did, while Bernard was another primary target of the team's this year. Kevin Zeitler, Ryan Hewitt and Dre Kirkpatrick are also players the Bengals are supposedly looking at going forward, but those deals might be a little trickier than the two they have already inked.
Aside from keeping a core guy around before other teams can come knocking in free agency, they undoubtedly looked at the disparity in production between Hill and Bernard last year. Bernard had 1.1 more yards per carry on average and 34 more receptions in 2015 over Hill, to go along with 52 total first downs netted to Hill's 50. Bernard also has significantly less fumbles in his career with four total, three of them lost, including two in the postseason--one of which came due to the questionable call against the Steelers in the Wild Card game. The play caused a concussion for Bernard. In Hill's two seasons to date, he has eight fumbles with six of them lost, including the infamous one in the Wild Card game.
There's one other aspect to consider: Rex Burkhead. While he doesn't have the athleticism of Bernard, he does provide the similar skill set with his versatility. And though he has taken a back seat to Hill and Bernard in his career, he is in the last year of his rookie contract. If he doesn't re-sign with the team at some point between now and next offseason, and the team had left Bernard unsigned, the Bengals could have been in trouble at the position after 2016.
So, who's the starter?
Before Bernard got the new deal, who the starting running back would be for the Bengals in 2016 was already a hot-button question. Now, the question becomes even more prevalent. Does the new deal and Hill's 2015 dip mean Bernard is going to get the lion's share of the carries and "starter duties" going forward? It's possible, especially because of Bernard's surer hands and versatility, but the question remains to be answered.
Hill is surely on a mission to redeem himself and he still is a type of back you want in the hard-nosed AFC North. My take has always been that Hill is a guy who gets better with more carries and some of his best games support the notion. Even though Bernard has the new deal, I still see the players splitting carries, with Bernard getting more looks as a receiver this season--especially with the wide receiver turnover this offseason. It's likely to be a No. 1A/No. 1B type of situation.