2017 Bengals Positional Review: Running Backs

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running Back Joe Mixon
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running Back Joe Mixon /

We take a look at how the Cincinnati Bengals’ running backs performed in 2017, what changed from 2016, and how they can improve in 2018.

The Bengals’ offense last year was among the more putrid in the NFL. The team could not even muster 20 points a game in 2017, and the blame starts with the run game. Without a reliable running back to shoulder the load, the Bengals were never able to establish an effective rushing attack. The offensive line did these backs no favors either, as they graded out as one of the most porous lines in the league.

The Bengals made a huge splash in the 2017 draft when they traded back in the second round and selected Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon. He had significant off-the-field concerns entering the draft, but Mixon was among the most talented backs available. Mixon was an important addition to the Cincinnati backfield and immediately became the starter.

Mixon led the Bengals in carries and yards last year, tallying 178 carries for 626 yards. He also rushed for 4 touchdowns. Even though he was the leading rusher, Mixon did not have an effective year, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry. Mixon also showed the ability to be a pass catcher out of the backfield, totaling 30 catches for 287 yards. Though there were certainly flashes of his electric talent – he rushed for 120 yards and a TD in Week 12 against Cleveland – Mixon generally struggled to transition to the NFL.

Most of the Bengals’ other backs struggled last year as well. The oft-maligned Jeremy Hill was phased almost entirely out of the offense, only taking 37 carries (one fewer than Andy Dalton) for 116 yards. That comes out to a dismal 3.1 YPC. Brian Hill toted the ball 11 times for 37 yards, so he was essentially a nonfactor. The wide receivers were never really involved either; as a whole, the position only got 8 carries on the year.

There was one major bright spot last year, though. Running back Giovani Bernard had a mini-renaissance operating as Joe Mixon’s backup last year. After signing a 3 year, $15 million extension last year, Bernard returned value on his contract. Bernard was far and away the Bengals’ most efficient rusher, totaling 458 yards and 2 touchdowns on 105 carries. Additionally, Bernard caught 43 passes for 389 yards and 2 more touchdowns.

Bernard’s efficiency was incredibly refreshing for many fans who grew frustrated seeing the run game become stagnant. The Bengals averaged 3.6 YPC as a team, but Bernard was almost a whole yard ahead of that, averaging 4.4 YPC himself. When Mixon missed time near the end of the year, Bernard stepped up as the lead running back and had some massive games. For instance, he was essential in beating Detroit in Week 16. When Mixon was healthy, Bernard was comfortable as a change of pace back. Bernard’s success last season buoyed this backfield and made it at least somewhat respectable.

What changed from 2016

The biggest change from 2016 to last year was the offensive line. While we will discuss the offensive line in more detail in a couple days, the loss of both tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler was absolutely brutal to the run game. Those two linemen were instrumental in opening running lanes along the left side of the line, and without them, space just wasn’t there last year.

In 2016, Jeremy Hill was also the feature running back. Though somewhat inefficient (3.8 YPC), he was a total bell cow. Hill took 222 carries for 839 yards and 9 TDs, more than double any other Bengal in each category. Hill had to take on even more of a lead back role because Bernard was injured for most of the year. Bernard was considerably less effective in 2016, only taking 91 carries for 337 yards (3.7 YPC) and 2 TDs, though he was still a weapon in the passing game.

The last big change from 2016 to 2017 was the loss of Rex Burkhead. Burkhead, a former sixth-round pick out of Nebraska, was often the third-string running back for the Bengals. However, once the Bengals were eliminated from the playoffs, Burkhead got a chance to shine, and he took advantage. Burkhead ended the year on a 119 yard, 2 TD performance that earned the attention of Bill Belichick, who signed him to the Patriots in the offseason.

What can improve in 2018

The Bengals’ backfield shouldn’t look much different in 2018. The tag team of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard should take a step forward and hover around league average efficiency. Mixon should become a more assertive runner and develop into the lead back the Bengals drafted him to be. What Mixon can focus on specifically is running between the tackles. Mixon isn’t a “power” back, but he’s big enough and athletic enough to be a one-cut runner and take advantage of small creases. This was an issue that plagued Jeremy Hill, so hopefully, Mixon can improve on this issue.

Bernard can hopefully repeat his level of efficiency from last year as Mixon’s change of pace back, getting about 8-10 touches a game. For Bernard, this season should be about staying healthy. Injuries have been an issue for Bernard over the course of his career, but he stayed healthy all last year, and it paid off. If Bernard can play at least 14 games, he should remain a key part of this backfield.

What needs to change most is the offensive line. The Bengals have already traded for Cordy Glenn from Buffalo, who, when healthy, is one of the better left tackles in the game. There are still other holes on the line, though, especially on the right side. If the Bengals want to reach their potential, they need to address the offensive line early and often. In particular, it is critical to Joe Mixon’s development that there is some space for him to work with on his carries.

One other aspect of the run game to pay close attention to next year is the use of the read-option. Dalton proved he could run effectively in 2015 and 2016, but the offense went away from the read-option last year. Dalton didn’t even average 3 yards per carry last season. Now that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has had a full year to institute his offensive system, it will be interesting to see if he wants to give Dalton more opportunities to run. I think it would add an extra wrinkle to this offense, so I am hoping for more Dalton read-options in the run game next season.

Draft prospects at running backs Bengals could target

Given the Bengals needs at other positions – offensive line, defensive line, and defensive depth – they should not draft a running back in the first three rounds. However, come Day 3, the Bengals may look at adding a running back to compete for the third-string job. Brian Hill is still on the roster, but his spot is tenuous is best. Notably, the Bengals could use a short-yardage and goal-line back, since neither Mixon nor Bernard is particularly powerful runners.

If the Bengals are willing to spend a fourth or fifth round pick on a running back, I like Josh Adams out of Notre Dame. Adams has a big frame at 6’2″, 220 pounds, and runs downhill powerfully. Though Adams is not a creative runner, he hits holes with force and is willing to initiate contact between the tackles. Adams profiles as a prospect who can eventually become a rotation back, but in the short term, he would be a very interesting situational back.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: quarterbacks

Should the Bengals wait until late in the draft, like the seventh round, I like Darrel Williams out of LSU. There are many similarly skilled running backs at this point in the draft, but Williams might be the best and freshest. He operated as Derrius Guice’s backup this year but still ran for 5.7 yards per carry and 9 TDs. Williams ran slow at the combine and didn’t show good vision at LSU, but has the perfect combination of size and physicality to be a short-yardage back. Williams likes to hit holes early and hard, which would be a good back to have on the roster next year.