Can Jeremy Hill Bounce Back in 2016?

Hill slipped from a 5.1 yards per carry mark in 2014 to just 3.6 in 2015. Is he still a football force on his own?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

In the throes of perfecting and honing our fantasy rosters, we sometimes forget that every player is a member of an entire offense; no one player exists in a vacuum, and no player’s value goes unaffected by his teammates’. If an offense passes more, they’ll be running less. The plays have to come from somewhere. The line above from English poet John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is a reminder to us: as we build our teams, we have to consider not just what we think the players we draft will produce this year but also what the players around them will produce as well.

No man is an island -- and especially not a running back in a timeshare backfield.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill finds his career at a crossroads in 2016, having been drafted 55th Overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and wowing the league with 5.1 rushing yards per carry in his rookie season. Last year, however, Hill saw his effectiveness plummet, and he finished with just 3.6 yards per carry. Meanwhile, teammate Giovani Bernard played his way to a sizable $15.5 million, three-year extension, seemingly confirming his status as the top dog in this backfield.

With this expression of confidence in Bernard, is Hill still a valuable member of the Bengals’ backfield dynamic duo, or has he fallen into a backup role?

For Whom the Bell Tolls

I always loved the math problems in school that relayed fractions and percentages as pieces of pie. Essentially the analogy would go like this: “There is a pie in Cincinnati, and Giovani and Jeremy have to share the pie. If Giovani is given 40 percent (two-fifths) of the pie, how much is left over for Jeremy?” That is our task in trying to figure out Jeremy Hill’s role with the Bengals this year: historically, how much will the Bengals give the ball to running backs, and what will be the split between Hill and Bernard?

We have to examine the trends of the team to understand what opportunities will be available for those players.

How have Cincinnati's running backs been used recently?

SeasonRB CarriesRB Targets

When considering the rushing attempts just by Cincinnati running backs, we can see that they hit a three-year low in 2015. In contrast, the targets afforded to running backs have swung upward from just 81 in 2013 to 112 last season. This is not indicative of the Bengals having to play catch-up, however. The team's passing play totals dropped from the imbalanced 616 in 2013 to 538 in 2015.

A big part of this was a Bengals’ defense that finished 10th in the league in our schedule-adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric, which you can learn more about in our glossary. By holding opposing offenses back, the Bengals were able to kill the clock and use far fewer plays in total in recent years. They dropped from 1,158 total offensive plays in 2013 to just 1,086 last year.

The Bengals’ defense dampened the need for offensive volume in 2015, increasing their game efficiency but at the cost of total plays. Does this mean a death knell for Hill's rushing production?

A Long and Stormy Voyage

The trajectory of the Bengals' offense has been to provide fewer overall plays and, therefore, less volume for running backs, but they've also displayed an offense leaning on short passes to the running backs more and more. Can this benefit Jeremy Hill any?

The table below shows the percentage of running back rushing attempts and targets that Hill and Bernard each have received in 2014 and 2015.

Year Player RB Rush% RB Targ%
2014 Giovani Bernard 40.48% 48.76%
2014 Jeremy Hill 53.49% 26.45%
2015 Giovani Bernard 40.42% 58.93%
2015 Jeremy Hill 58.53% 16.96%

While Hill’s rushing market share increased slightly last year, his usage in the passing game dropped significantly, and all of those targets that he lost went to Bernard.

In addition, the Bengals' defensive prowess last year is even more troublesome for Hill. Often we see decreased rushes and additional targets because a team has fallen behind more often and needs to throw to pick up more yards and conserve the clock.

However, according to Pro Football Reference, they only trailed in two or more quarters in three games last season. In fact, they had six games with double-digit leads at halftime and seven two-score leads going into the fourth quarter. There was no odd play calling that ran counter to this either; they had a pass-to-run play calling ratio of 0.49 in games where they led in the fourth quarter and a ratio of 2.78 when they trailed going into the fourth.

Why is this troublesome?

As we've established, the Bengals' strong defensive showing last year was key to enforcing a positive game script, which in turn allowed more rushing chances for Hill. Our algorithms predict the Bengals’ defense to slip from 2015's 10th-place berth to 13th in the league this year, though.

In games that the Bengals led in 2015, Hill had 38.94 percent of the running back opportunities in the fourth quarter, identical to Bernard's share. In games that they were losing, however, Bernard soaked up 61.40 percent of the fourth quarter running back opportunities; Hill had just 12.28 percent.

Our projections for the two running backs seem to fit this bill. The table below shows our projection for both Hill and Bernard throughout the 2016 NFL season, rounded to the nearest whole number.

Player Rushes Rush Yd Rush TD Rec Rec Yd Rec TD
Giovani Bernard 145 651 3 43 420 1
Jeremy Hill 190 776 7 28 176 1

From a fantasy perspective, Hill appears to still be the slightly better bet in most standard leagues solely because of his touchdown upside, but in any sort of PPR format Bernard is the way to go. Add in the fact that -- given how game-script dependent Hill is -- Bernard’s floor of production appears to be much higher in any given situation.

In Hill, you have an early-down bruiser who averaged just 3.44 yards per carry on early downs in 2015 and a late-game closer who could see fewer big leads to run out the clock on.

Hill is a great role player for the Cincinnati Bengals, but the fantasy bell could be tolling: for him and for us.