Bengals Draft Preview: Running Backs

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an eight-part series previewing the Cincinnati Bengals draft needs by position group. Today’s look is at running backs.

Roster (contract length): Jeremy Hill (2017), Giovani Bernard (2016), Ryan Hewitt (2016), Rex Burkhead (2016), Cedric Peerman (2016), James Wilder (2016)

Analysis: The Bengals have struck gold recently not only with Giovani Bernard in the second round in 2013 and Jeremy Hill in the second round in 2014, but also by signing H-back Ryan Hewitt as an undrafted free agent last year.

That, coupled with the emergence of Rex Burkhead and solid, special teams stalwart Cedric Peerman, gives Cincinnati one of the best all-around backfields in the NFL.

Hill deserved to at least be a Pro Bowl alternate last year, but his lack of touches early in the season worked against him. He goes into his sophomore season locked in as the starter, so if he can deliver the same kind of production over the course of 16 games, he will get plenty of votes.

Moving Hill into the starting role and getting Bernard back from injury resulted in both backs flourishing in their new roles as the Bengals developed into one of the best rushing teams in the league over the final month of the season.

In the final four games of 2014, Hill averaged 5.7 yards per carry during and Bernard averaged 4.4 in addition to catching 18 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

Hewitt exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of Bengals coaches by developing into a tremendous lead blocker who helped Hill and Bernard spring a number of long runs.

But as talented and crowded as the Bengals backfield is, it won’t preclude them from adding another guy if they see a chance to get value on the third day of the draft.

With this being a deep year for backs, there certainly should be some late-round options.

Needs: Looking solely at the 2015 season, no real need presents itself.

But the gaze always goes beyond the current calendar, especially when it comes to running backs, who have an even shorter NFL shelf life than most positions.

If the Bengals – or any other team – can keep adding talent and value at the back end of the draft every year, they can avoid shelling out huge dollars when players’ rookie contracts expire after four seasons.

With the positon becoming more devalued every year and statistical evidence showing that effectiveness falls off dramatically after five years, it only makes sense to take at least one shot at mining a late-round gem.

Top 5 prospects

1 . Todd Gurley, Georgia

A rare mix of speed and power will make Gurley the first running back selected in the first round since 2012.

2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

Gordon’s long legs and strides coupled with an impressive short burst have him leaping past Gurley to be the first back selected in many mock drafts.

3. Tevin Coleman, Indiana

His reckless, violent running style is going to need refinement if he’s going to succeed at the next level. He has to show more patience as plays develop as well as improve his ability to break tackles.

4. Jay Ajayi, Boise State

A quick-footed former soccer player, Ajayi might be the most well-rounded back on the board with his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, but NFL defenders won’t be left flailing at his dizzying moves the way college tacklers were.

5. T.J Yeldon, Alabama

Strong, physical runner, but he will struggle to stay healthy if he can’t learn to run with a lower pad level. He has a long way to go in pass protection as well.

Sleeper

Matt Jones, Florida

A big, physical chain-mover who doesn’t project as an every-down back but would be a solid addition to any backfield if he falls past the fifth round.

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