One of the bigger storylines heading into the 2013 NFL season was how big of an impact newly-drafted Giovani Bernard have on the Cincinnati Bengals backfield. It was a reasonable question considering Bernard was the first running back selected in the 2013 draft, going 37th overall. The only legitimate roadblocks were veterans BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard Scott and Cedric Peerman – none of those guys had proven that they had the ability to single-handedly take over a backfield.
The argument made in favor of Green-Ellis was his tough running and ball security during his career. According to pro-football-reference.com, Green-Ellis only fumbled three times in 788 career carries prior to the 2013 season – a very impressive number. And although sure-handedness is certainly a valuable asset for an NFL running back, without an explosive element to go along with it, you tend to have nothing more than average player.
In 2013, Green-Ellis received the majority of the team’s carries, 220, and accumulated 756 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. Bernard picked up the rest, posting 170 carries for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns. Green-Ellis, who has never been known as a receiving threat, only had four receptions, while Bernard hauled in 56 catches for 514 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Just a quick glance at these numbers should alert you to the fact that Green-Ellis was much more inefficient with his touches. Bernard looked much more dangerous with the ball in his hands than did his counterpart, showing burst and agility. It’s not only the emergence of an explosive playmaker that may be signaling the end for Green-Ellis in Cincinnati, either – it’s his precipitous decline in efficiency during his past four seasons.
One of the most crucial tools we have at our disposal here at numberFire is our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. This basically assigns a point value to a player for every situation encountered during a game depending on if what he does hurts or helps his team. Check out our glossary for a more detailed description.
The table below shows Green-Ellis’s last four seasons according to our Rushing NEP, Rushing NEP per rush, and Success Rate (the percentage of plays that had a positive effect on his NEP).
|Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP/Rush||Success Rate|
Looking at the table above makes it very easy to see how Green-Ellis’s play has declined fairly consistently during the past four seasons. Except for a small uptick in his Success Rate in 2013, every category has steadily declined.
This doesn't mean that, in 2014, Green-Ellis can’t break the trend and have a rebound season. But for a running back who will be 29 years old by season’s start, and who has not shown much agility or explosiveness up to this point, it’s easy to be pessimistic about his chances for a sudden resurgence.
While Bernard didn't necessarily set the world on fire with his NEP stats, (-6.75 Rushing NEP, -.04 Rushing NEP per rush and a 42.69% Success Rate) he still performed better than Green-Ellis while simultaneously adjusting to the speed of the NFL and learning a new offensive system.
Where Bernard really sets himself apart is his versatility catching the football. In 2013, he posted 32.45 Reception Net Expected Points, ranking him fifth out of nine running backs with 50 to 70 receptions. Although he sits near the middle of this list, for a rookie to perform similarly to Reggie Bush and LeSean McCoy with respect to catching the football, it shows tremendous promise. With a full year under his belt, Bernard should build upon his 2013 campaign with a better understanding of the NFL game.
Another important factor to understand heading into 2014 for the Bengals backfield is Hue Jackson becoming the team’s new offensive coordinator.
In 2010 while serving as the Oakland Raiders Offensive Coordinator, Jackson engineered one of the best running games in the NFL. Under Jackson's guidance, the Raiders ranked second in rushing yards and fourth in rushing attempts, ranking fifth in rushing effectiveness according to our metrics. In 2011 as the Raiders Head Coach, they ranked seventh in both rushing yards and attempts, and were a top 15 team according to Net Expected Points. It’s clear that Jackson prefers to have a strong running game as evidenced by what he did during his tenure in Oakland.
As the new offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, it’s assumed that Jackson wants to follow a similar plan in 2014. Although he appears pleased with Andy Dalton's development so far this off-season, it will be a shock for him to totally abandon the philosophy that he has implored during his coaching career.
So if Coach Jackson wants to run the ball more, and Green-Ellis continues his downward slide, who will help Bernard shoulder the load?
The Bengals 2014 second-round pick, Jeremy Hill, may be the answer.
As a sophomore at LSU in 2013, Hill amassed 1,401 yards rushing with 16 touchdowns earning himself First-Team All-SEC honors. These numbers are terrific on their own, but considering Hill played against the toughest defenses in college football on a weekly basis makes it even more impressive. According to NFL.com, Hill also takes care of the football, having only fumbled once in 371 career touches at LSU.
As a 21-year-old rookie, Hill most likely is not ready to command a giant workload immediately in the NFL. However, he does profile as a younger, more agile BenJarvus Green-Ellis, possible putting the last nail in the Law Firm’s coffin in Cincinnati. A combination of Bernard and Hill would appear to make Green-Ellis the odd man out.
There will always be a roster spot open in the NFL for a running back who doesn't fumble and can get you tough yards when called upon. For BenJarvus Green-Ellis, however, that place may not be Cincinnati for much longer.