A new NFL year begins at 4:00 p.m. on March 14. The free agent market, in all of its frantic glory, will open. Teams will rush to finalize contracts with players that they’ve targeted. Being productive during this stage of the offseason requires entering it with a well-defined plan. Now that the NFL Combine is in the rearview mirror, those plans will be better defined than ever.
This is the second of multiple articles, breaking down the state of the Bengals’ roster as it enters this phase. How did players perform in 2017, and how does it affect their job security in 2018? What will the Bengals look for to address each position group as a result?
Without further ado, let’s talk about running backs.
- 2017 Snap Count: 511 (486 Offense, 25 Special Teams)
- Carries: 105
- Rushing Yards: 458
- Rushing Touchdowns: 2
- Catches: 43
- Receiving Yards: 389
- Receiving Touchdowns: 2
- 2018 Contract Situation: $4.25M cap hit ($1.5M dead money); signed through 2019
While Bernard was never the Bengals’ first choice in 2017, he accumulated enough snaps behind Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon to outplay both, quantitatively speaking. In his brief stints leading the backfield when both players were hurt, he could’ve been worse. In his all-time role as receiving back and general second banana, he was exceptional.
Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 team ranked Bernard as their 31st-best halfback, behind fellow receiving backs James White and Theo Riddick. Here’s a bit of what they thought about him:
He’s a good receiver out of the backfield and his blocking improved, but the Bengals didn’t do enough schematically to maximize his talents. He’s a small, shifty back who works well in space, but the Bengals haven’t found ways to get him in that space—either as a receiver or as a runner—often enough.
Now, there were times that Bernard moved around the formation. He aligned in the slot or split wide in empty formations, or he’d flare out of the backfield to create them. But it wasn’t a tactic that the Bengals used with regularity, certainly not to its full potential. Bernard has more to offer as a receiver than he was asked to give in 2017.
Perhaps, given a full offseason with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, we’ll see Bernard used in more creative ways. The Bengals’ team of last season could’ve used that.
- 2017 Snap Count: 401 (385 Offense, 16 Special Teams)
- Carries: 178
- Rushing Yards: 626
- Rushing Touchdowns: 4
- Catches: 30
- Receiving Yards: 287
- 2018 Contract Situation: $1.24M cap hit ($2.29M dead money); signed through 2020
Mixon’s cap hit is precisely $1,238,675, while his dead money value is precisely $2,290,558. Those numbers are ugly; such is the rookie wage scale, it would appear. Not that it particularly matters – the Bengals wouldn’t dream of releasing him.
If there’s one thing that Bill Lazor made clear when he assumed the mantle of offensive coordinator, it’s that Mixon was his guy. He’ll continue to be the guy going forward, as he should be. While his statistical production in 2017 didn’t match his draft hype, Mixon wasn’t exactly a bad player. He ranked 24th among halfbacks on the Bleacher Report list, and his Pro Football Focus grade of 82.4 ranked 15th. As Bleacher Report noted, “[Mixon] demonstrated all the skills he displayed regularly in college, with great ability to start and stop while cutting on a dime despite being listed at 228 pounds”.
It is, in fact, Mixon’s own versatility that should allow Bernard to deepen his role as the receiving back. Mixon has all the necessary tools to handle screens, flares, split alignments, and other passing-down responsibilities. Bernard can move around formations, splitting out with Mixon in the backfield (and vice versa).
Having two backs who can do anything should allow the Bengals to drastically broaden their offensive portfolio. Mixon just has to grow into that role – and it seems likely he could as soon as this coming season.
- 2017 Snap Count: 130 (19 Offense, 111 Special Teams)
- Carries: 11
- Rushing Yards: 37
- Catches: 2
- Receiving Yards: 36
- 2018 Contract Situation: $550K cap hit; signed through 2018.
If the prospective 2018 Bengals’ backfield were the 2016 incarnation, Bernard would be himself and Mixon would be a more diverse Jeremy Hill. Brian Hill, in turn, would be a younger Cedric Peerman.
A fifth-round pick of Atlanta in 2017, the Bengals swiped Hill from the Falcons’ practice squad at the outset of Week 11. No other back on the Bengals’ roster had more special teams snaps in 2017 than Hill. The rest of the backs on the Bengals’ roster combined didn’t have as many special teams snaps as Hill. And no, that wasn’t split over two teams – Football Outsiders tallied Hill’s snaps for the Falcons separately.
Past being the special teams ace, though, Hill isn’t particularly reminiscent of Peerman. At 6’1″, 219 lbs. coming out in 2017, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein compared him to Latavius Murray. While this wasn’t exhibited much in 2017 – by either the Bengals or Falcons – Hill has the tools to be a pinch power-runner, complementing Bernard were Mixon to get injured.
As far as why he wasn’t in 2017? Likely due to his status as a late arrival and a special teams contributor. A guy who doesn’t know the playbook can only learn so much at a time, and it’s clear where the Bengals allocated him. As for the Falcons, they simply didn’t need him – Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman lead their backfield, and Terron Ward holds down their special teams duties.
It’s possible that 2018 Brian Hill is more Rex Burkhead than Peerman, but either way, he’s probably on the roster.
- 2017 Snap Count: 85 (77 Offense, 8 Special Teams)
- Carries: 37
- Rushing Yards: 116
- Catches: 4
- Receiving Yards: 16
- 2018 Contract Situation: Pending Free Agent
Jeremy Hill’s 2017 season was a progression from bad first banana to underwhelming third banana, to injured, to injured reserve. Despite his regression, Hill is still only 25 years old and in his physical prime. That being said, his departure from Cincinnati is already all but certain, and completely justified. He wouldn’t walk into the Bengals’ camp with anything resembling the starting job that he’s held in the past. Why pass up an opportunity to reestablish himself elsewhere (which he’ll absolutely have)?
As for the Bengals, they’re not losing anything in Hill that they haven’t already replaced. His departure doesn’t create any notable need.
- 2017 Snap Count: 3 (1 Offense, 2 Special Teams)
- 2018 Contract Situation: Pending (Exclusive Rights) Free Agent
It’s hard to assess Williams’ value to the Bengals. He was available all season, the Bengals had a rash of injuries later on, yet he almost completely avoided the field. Brian Hill’s late signing and heavy use says almost as much about Williams as it does about himself.
An undrafted free agent out of UTSA, Williams spent most of the 2017 season on the Bengals’ practice squad. In all likelihood, that’s where he’ll remain.
- 2017 Snap Count: 0
- 2018 Contract Situation: $480K cap hit; signed through 2018.
There’s conceivably a void at the bottom of the Bengals’ depth chart, should they want to carry four running backs. Tra Carson may have a chance to fill that role, seeing as he’s still around to begin with. An undrafted free agent in 2016 who spent 2017 on injured reserve, there’s little forcing the Bengals to retain him. Perhaps those in the facility have seen something from Carson that renders him valuable to them. Those of us outside haven’t seen him take a live snap since his days at Texas A&M.
Already 25 years old, it’s more than likely that Carson is released in camp. The Bengals have seven Day 3 picks – one could easily be a flier on a sliding running back prospect. The 2018 class has no shortage of quality runners.
- 2017 Snap Count: 0
- 2018 Contract Situation: Pending Free Agent
Set to turn 32 in October, coming off a year on injured reserve, this is a logical end to Cedric Peerman’s career. He’ll receive camp invites from other teams, more than likely, but his making a roster is far from guaranteed. Perhaps he mulls around and picks up the phone midseason, after injuries pile up, but that’s not something every veteran is willing to do.
Free Agency Outlook
It’s unlikely that the Bengals take anyone in this running back market, frankly. They don’t require much more than a camp body – a second Tra Carson, if you will. It’ll likely be Carson that any newcomer would have to fight for a fourth running back slot on the roster that may or may not exist.
Still, if the Bengals don’t want to waste one of their draft picks on that role, they have options. The Texans are set to lose Alfred Blue and Andre Ellington; the Bills are set to lose Travaris Cadet and Taiwan Jones. Lance Dunbar will be free from the Rams, Eddie Lacy from the Seahawks, and Terrance West from the Ravens. Other names – like the Giants’ Shane Vereen – are out there, and that’s without dipping into the restricted free agent pool.
That said, that’s all some of these guys are at this point: names. And for those who don’t follow the free agency news cycle on a yearly basis, they may not even be that. They’re just warm bodies. But, again, that’s the Bengals’ level of need. A couple guys to fill out their camp roster.
While still not a need, there’s a fair chance that the Bengals end up burning a pick on a running back. As noted earlier, they’ll enter the draft with eleven total picks: 12th, 46th, 77th, 100th, 112th, 151st, 170th, 187th, 249th, 252nd, and 253rd overall. The last three of those picks fall within the last eight picks of the draft entirely. Positional need will likely fall by the wayside before the Bengals are even halfway through their picks.
This leaves ample room for a running back to fit somewhere into the mix. Everyone has Penn State’s Saquon Barkley as the best available talent, but boards get subjective further down and value becomes relative. LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and USC’s Ronald Jones II are near the top. Then there’s Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson. Oregon’s Royce Freeman. Miami’s Mark Walton. N.C. State’s Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines. Notre Dame’s Josh Adams. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny.
Naming them all without context would be a pointless exercise, but that’s a sample. Suffice to say, the Bengals could take a back they think has Day 2 value if he falls to Day 3, or Round 5 value if he falls to Round 7. They have enough picks lying around, and the roster will take care of itself.