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Better Run through the Jungle

The Bengals’ backfield was once one of their strengths. The combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard provided the team with a potent rushing attack. With a drop in production last year, the Bengals looked to make a change this off-season. But does that change mean that the end is near for both Hill and Bernard or does one of them have a chance to salvage his career in Cincinnati?

Joe Mixon is a top level talent who slipped in the draft due to off-the-field issues. The Bengals have never shied away from this type of player, so it came as no surprise to anyone when they drafted him in the second round. With Mixon’s skill level, many are projecting him not only as a starter, but as a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate.  I’m not questioning Mixon’s talent, but aren’t we forgetting about someone?

When the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill out of LSU in 2014, he immediately made his presence known rushing for 1,124 yards (averaging 5.1 yards per carry) and 9 touchdowns as a rookie. The following season, Hill took a step back in terms of yards (794) and yards per carry (3.6) and explosive plays, but rushed for 11 touchdowns, which was tied for the most of any rusher in the NFL that season. This past year, Hill’s per carry average remained a low 3.8 yards per carry, but on a positive note, he did produce more long runs of twenty plus yards than he had since his rookie year. The big question is who is the real Jeremy Hill? Is he the promising young rusher he appeared to be in his rookie campaign or is he a 3-point-something yards in a cloud of dust short yardage specialist?

Since Hill arrived in the league, he and Giovani Bernard have split time in the Bengals backfield. This had been effective in the past, but last year both struggled. Bernard is a bit quicker and was used more often in the pass game, while the physical Hill was more effective in goal line situations. It is important to work to a player’s strength as a play caller, but it is also important not to be too predictable. This may have hurt them both during this 2016 season. Mixon is a versatile back and with Bernard still recovering from a torn ACL, Hill was reportedly more involved in the pass game than usual during OTAs.  Perhaps the Bengals are planning to use both Hill and Mixon in similar ways and move away from predictability.

The Bengals had offensive line issues last season, which will likely be exacerbated by the departure of their top two players at that position this off-season. The addition of players like John Ross and Josh Malone, who can stretch the field opposite A.J. Green, may help this situation giving them less crowded boxes to deal with and hopefully creating opportunities for the Bengals’ rushers to shine.

While Jeremy Hill has had his struggles, it is too soon to give up on him. Mixon is a talented back who will likely have a very successful NFL career, but don’t expect Hill to give up his spot on top of the Bengals’ depth chart without a fight.

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