Roster Projections is a series that’ll look to break down and discuss each of the Cincinnati Bengals’ position groups, then project how they’ll look at the end of the 2018 offseason. In this series, we’ll look at players’ 2017 seasons, analyze them as they currently are, and predict how they’ll spend 2018 with the Bengals. The second edition of this series will cover the Bengals’ running backs.
The running back group in Cincinnati may be one of the best in the NFL. It features a wide array of talent, with two starting-caliber backs and young, high-upside talent at every level. With the right breaks, this group could be special in 2018 and have staying power through the years beyond.
The top of the Bengals’ running back depth chart is all but set with Joe Mixon entering his sophomore season. Mixon was the Bengals’ favored back in 2017 after Bill Lazor’s promotion to offensive coordinator, despite Jeremy Hill (now with the Patriots) being the listed starter until Week 9. Mixon’s numbers weren’t spectacular, but he suffered due to sub-par blocking up front like the rest of the offense. That didn’t stop him from flashing the unique athleticism that made him a highly touted prospect. That athleticism, a year of NFL experience, and improved blocking should help Mixon’s production explode in 2018. If he stays healthy, his rushing and receiving totals could very well come close to doubling.
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The player who’ll likely take the biggest bite into Mixon’s snaps is Giovani Bernard. While Mixon found his footing in 2017 and Hill floundered, Bernard played well in relief of both. He isn’t the between-the-tackles runner that Mixon is, but he handles those duties well enough for a backup. In passing situations – as either a receiver or a blocker – Bernard is an asset and should see plenty of use. Mixon can do it all, but there’s no reason to make him do it alone with Bernard waiting behind him. That duo alone should be one of the best in the entire NFL in 2018.
Cincinnati isn’t afraid to rotate through more than their top two backfield options though. Mixon and Bernard will see the lions’ share of reps, but there’s enough depth to allow breaks for both. Brian Hill joined the team midway through the 2017 season and almost immediately began to see reps on special teams. He managed to work his way onto the field on offense and showed potential as a part-time power back. Hill resembles Mixon with his powerful running style and bigger, heavier body, just a step below in terms of talent. If Mixon is injured or needs a breather at times, look for Hill to become the offense’s power back.
The Bengals had great depth at running back heading into the 2018 NFL draft, but that didn’t stop them from taking Miami’s Mark Walton in the fourth round. Walton is too talented to keep off the field – the question is when he’ll see it. He’s a back in the same mold as Bernard: smaller, explosive, a plus pass-catcher with some between-the-tackles ability. He may be an option to spell Bernard or he may be a replacement for him. Either way, look for Walton to eventually take some snaps away from the Mixon/Bernard combo.
With the depth on this roster, it’ll be hard to find spots for backs like Tra Carson, Ray Lawry, and Jarveon Williams. Carson has looked good in past preseason play but spent 2017 on injured reserve. He’ll probably be the first running back on the practice squad but is on the older side at 25 (26 in October). Lawry and Williams will be battling it out in camp and the preseason to make the practice squad as well. Of the two, Williams should have the inside track after running for 117 yards in the fourth preseason game last season.