Giovani Bernard has been one of the only constants on this Cincinnati Bengals team over the last 5 years. He’s not going to fade away.
Running back Giovani Bernard, entering his sixth year with the Cincinnati Bengals, has never been “the guy”. Even predating Jeremy Hill, he had to compete for carries with Benjarvus Green-Ellis. During the Hill era, the Bengals utilized him as almost entirely a scatback. Regardless of his usage, though, Bernard was always an efficient runner and a dynamic weapon in the open field.
Now, very little has changed. Jeremy Hill left, but Joe Mixon, last year’s second-round pick, has taken his place. Many projected Mixon to be a three-down back in the NFL, not unlike Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. He certainly showed flashes of his electric talent last season and looks to assume a larger role in 2018, and an improved offensive line should help. However, Bernard is still on this roster, too. I don’t expect the team to completely phase him out of the offense, especially since he outplayed Mixon last season.
Looking at Bernard’s statistical outputs last year, they were the lowest 16 game totals of his career. He rushed 105 times for 458 and 2 touchdowns. Per usual, he made his mark through the air, catching 43 of his 60 targets for 389 yards and an extra two touchdowns. In addition, he played the fewest percentage of snaps of any of his five NFL seasons (48.6% of snaps). While that may seem disappointing, that is just the surface-level view of Bernard’s season. A deeper dive reveals he was actually extremely effective on a dreadful Bengals offense.
The Bengals as a whole may have been the worst offense in the league last year. Ranking dead last in total yards, 26th in points, 27th in passing yards, and 31st in rushing yards, the unit really disappointed fans. Bernard, if anything, was a welcome bright spot. He rushed for 4.4 yards per carry, which is the second highest mark of his career. That 4.4 number is also a full yard better than any other Bengals running back. Those failures mostly fall on the O-line, but it demonstrates just how great Bernard was when he got the ball.
Furthermore, Bernard’s 72 percent catch rate was almost 12 full points higher than Andy Dalton’s overall completion percentage. That shows he was a reliable passing weapon for the team last year, of which there were very few. To top it off, he did not fumble at all last year.
Bernard’s overall efficiency has yet to drop, and I don’t expect that to happen next year, either. When Bernard was entering the league, he had the highest pedigree running back prospect in the 2013 draft class. The open field elusiveness and dynamic pass-catching enticed analysts, and Bernard has shown those skills in the pros. His biggest knock, though, was his inability to handle large workloads. That has certainly been true of Bernard, as well.
While he’s normally very effective with his touches, Bernard’s efficiency takes a massive hit when he takes on a workhorse role over multiple games. To maintain his efficiency, he has to remain in a somewhat limited role behind a more traditional workhorse.
Bengals fans know this by merely watching Bernard play, but the stats back it up as well. In five seasons with the team, Bernard’s two lowest percentages of snaps played came last year and in 2015 (when Jeremy Hill assumed the full starting role). Bernard played 48.6% of snaps last year and 54.0% of snaps in 2015. In those two seasons, he averaged his highest yards per carry and yards per reception. 2015 and 2017 are the only two seasons in which he has averaged over 9 yards per reception.
2015 may have been Bernard’s most effective year when he averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 9.6 yards per reception – both career highs. He was clearly involved in the offense, racking up over 1,200 total yards on 12 touches a game, but also definitively played behind Jeremy Hill. Hill took 223 carries and an extra 15 receptions on more snaps than Bernard. Clearly, he has his most success when playing as a rotation back.
Conversely, Bernard’s two worst seasons have coincided with his two highest percentage of snaps played of his career. In 2014 and 2016, Bernard had snap counts of 59.2% and 57.0%, respectively. During those two seasons, Bernard averaged his two lowest yards per carry and yards per catch of his career.
In fact, 2016 is the only season in which Bernard has not rushed for at least 4 yards per carry. Additionally, those two seasons are the only seasons in which he hasn’t hit 9 yards per reception. Most importantly, 2014 and 2016 are the only two season he has missed games. When acting as a rotation back, Bernard has always played 16 games and stayed healthy.
Projecting into the future, Bernard’s role should look fairly similar to last season. We expect Joe Mixon’s role to increase, and it should. Mixon had 178 carries and 30 receptions last year, so the carries should increase while the catches remain constant. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Mixon match or even slightly eclipse the 238 touches Hill had in 2015. Even if Mixon does see a bump in workload, that doesn’t mean he should usurp Bernard’s role at all.
On a large scale, I don’t see any way that Mixon matches Bernard’s efficiency next season. Not only is Bernard still drastically more familiar with the team’s offense than Mixon, but he’s also simply a more dynamic runner in the open field than Mixon on limited touches. Mixon has the frame and athleticism to handle a big workload, but Bernard can contribute in much the same way he did last year.
If I had to project a stat line for Bernard, I’d guess 102 carries for 469 yards and 3 touchdowns with 54 catches for 490 yards and another 2 touchdowns. With the improvements along the offensive line and the limited workload, his efficiency should be excellent next year. That stat line would assume his works carries per game of his career (6.4), but almost a career high in yards per carry (4.6). Furthermore, I like Bernard’s potential as a pass catcher in Bill Lazor’s offense, so the 3.5 catches per game and 9.0 yards per catch may even be conservative.
Holistically, I think the Bengals and Bengals fans can expect another really solid season from Bernard. In many ways, it feels like he’s often forgotten behind the Bengals’ workhorse backs and even new 4th round pick Mark Walton. But Bernard is the picture of consistency, and he should not be forgotten. He has been an integral part of the offense and will continue to be next season.