Leading up to the start of training camp for the Cincinnati Bengals on July 29, we’re breaking down each position group.
Today’s look is at the running backs, which was the only position group on the team last year that had the same players — Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead — active for all 16 regular-season games.
Barring injury, it’s hard to envision any of newcomers (Bronson Hill, Tra Carson and Dy’Shawn Mobley) supplanting any of the main four on the 53-man roster, but one or possibly two of them should find a spot on the practice squad.
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Here are seven things to know about the running backs.
Punctuated by his devastating fumble in the wild-card loss to Pittsburgh, Jeremy Hill had a disappointing second season as his rushing yards plummeted to 794 despite logging one more carry than he did as a rookie when he rushed for 1,124. But he showed signs of turning things around in the second half of the season last year, averaging 3.9 yards per rush over the final seven games as opposed to 3.2 through the first nine.
Despite the disappointing yardage totals, Jeremy Hill rushed for 11 touchdowns and had one receiving score to equal the most total TDs by a running back in the Marvin Lewis era (Rudi Johnson also had 12 in 2004, 2005 and 2006).
The last Bengals running back to score more than 12 touchdowns in a season was Corey Dillon, who had 13 (10 rushing, three receiving) in 2001.
Despite logging a career-low 154 carries in 2015, Giovani Bernard rushed for a career-high 730 yards for an average of 4.7 per attempt. That 4.7 is third-highest number among Bengals players who averaged at least five carries per game, trailing only Corey Dillon’s 4.8 during his rookie year of 1997 and Jeremy Hill’s 5.1 during his rookie year in 2014.
Bernard, who signed a three-year, $15.5 million contract extension in June, also caught 49 passes for 472 yards, giving him an average of 5.9 yards per touch.
The advanced analytics site ProFootballFocus.com recently ranked all 32 NFL teams’ running back units, and the Bengals came in a middling 12th.
PFF’s Mike Reiner wrote: “It was an ugly sophomore season for Jeremy Hill — somewhat similar to Giovani Bernard’s 2014 campaign. Hill’s running style has never seemed to match up with his imposing body type, and it’s led to him being among the least-elusive backs each of his first two seasons. I’d bet on Bernard getting more than his 154 carries he managed a season ago, as he achieved one of the 10 best cumulative rushing grades in the league.”
Cedric Peerman had no rushes or receptions last year and went to the Pro Bowl. While the seventh-year pro is listed as a running back, Peerman’s production came solely on special teams, where he led the Bengals in tackles for the second year in a row.
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Peerman’s 17 special-teams stops were six more than the next highest total on the team, and he was a big reason the Bengals ranked third in the NFL in opponents’ average drive start on kickoffs (20.2 yard line).
While still listed as a running back, Burkhead has carved out a niche as a slot receiver, a transition that came about out of necessity in 2014 when the Bengals were decimated by injuries heading into their playoff game against Indianapolis.
Burkhead had career highs with 10 receptions and 94 yards last season, with eight of the 10 catches coming when he lined up at receiver.
That added value along with his play special teams play, where he was the Bengals second-leading tackler in 2015, resulted in Burkhead appearing in all 16 games after only playing in 10 in his first two seasons combined.
Bronson Hill joined the Bengals in February, making them the fifth NFL team the Eastern Michigan product signed with in a span of less than six months. Hill entered the league with Buffalo as undrafted free agent. The Bills waived him as part of their final cuts at the end of the 2015 preseason, and Hill would bounce around for short stints on the practice squads of Chicago (12 days), Miami (five days) and New Orleans (22 days).
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