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Campfire Chat: What's Going to Happen in the Cincinnati Backfield?

The Footballguys staff hangs out and discusses what's going on in Cincinnati

The story in Cincinnati seems simple. Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard haven't been good enough to get the job done. Enter Joe Mixon. Off-the-field issues aside, Mixon looks the part of workhorse running back. But with all three backs on the roster, will they all have roles? Is there value here?

Chad Parsons: My storyboard projection for the Cincinnati backfield is Jeremy Hill is undervalued to start the season. While an impressive profile and lauded skills, I doubt Joe Mixon gets the keys to the backfield in the opening weeks. Hill is a value based on his RB50+ ADP in September.

Joe Mixon continues his development, snaring a stronger share of the backfield snaps and touches as the season continues. By November, Mixon is a weekly fantasy starter and he emerges as a Jordan Howard/David Johnson-lite type late-season impact, winning fantasy playoff matchups and titles for savvy owners who held Mixon (or acquired early in the season) when the volume was lower.

Giovani Bernard's role will be in the pass-centric, low RB2 but likely RB3 zone of fantasy projections. Bernard will be stronger early in the season when Mixon is still ramping up, than later when Mixon is closer to three-down usage.

Jason Wood: I'm of a different mind than Chad.

The Bengals used a high pick on Mixon and most scouts believes, on pure talent, he could've and should've gone even higher. As long as Mixon is a model citizen, I think he'll stand out and earn the immediate role as the team's lead back. The Bengals coaches have remarked about the need to have more deception in the way they utilize their runners, feeling as though the Bernard/Hill combination was too predictable based on their relative skill sets. You knew Hill wasn't going to run a flywheel and take an outlet pass to the house. You knew Gio wasn't going to pound up the middle for a tough 3-and-2 conversion. In Mixon, they have a back that can do it all. Versatility is essential for morphing the Bengals offense from good to excellent.

Combine that with the news Bernard is healthy and has looked incredible at the start of camp and I see Hill as a "break glass in case of emergency" backup this year.

David Dodds: The Bengals drafted Mixon at a time when they were unsure if Giovani Bernard would make it onto the field by the start of the season. Jeremy Hill has always been one-dimensional (not a pass catcher) so it made sense to add a quality back to ensure they had great depth at the position.

I think most pundits will agree that Joe Mixon will be the primary back for the Bengals in 2017, but the question really becomes when does that cut in happen? The team has a soft schedule to start the year (home games against BAL, HOU, and BUF and road games against GB and CLE) before their bye in week 6. I suspect they have Mixon as part of the RBBC (filling in for both Hill and Bernard), before giving him the reins after the bye. If I am right about the timing, Mixon is being drafted way too early. He should have a big role eventually, but he likely can be acquired significantly cheaper by trade after the team's 3rd game against Green Bay.

Ari Ingel: The Bengals have ranked 9th, 13th and 4th in running back touches over past three seasons, so there is plenty to go around for Mixon to put up big numbers. Hill is nothing more than a backup or an occasional goal line back. I could see Gio taking 30-35% of the snaps, with the rest for Mixon. His biggest obstacle is the Bengals offensive line that has the two worst starting tackles in the league and one of the worst starting right guards in the league.

John Norton: There are a wide variety of opinions on this. As a Bengals homer this is my take; Hill was a great between the tackles runner before they cracked him across the knuckles for fumbling. Now his confidence is shaken and he just plain doesn't run as hard. He may have the short yardage/goal line job this year but other than that I expect him to be the forgotten man.

Bernard can't gain 6 inches between the tackles and has always been highly over rated in fantasy circles. He might break a big play now and then and will still see a lot of time as the third down back, but I expect Mixon to be as close as it gets to a workhorse back in Cincinnati this year unless he somehow stinks it up in the preseason or fails as a pass blocker. If Mixon can't pick up the blitz we will see more of Hill for a while.

Andy Hicks: Sometimes it is wise to pay attention to team history, rather than across the NFL as a whole. If we look at the Cincinnati Bengals, a rookie running back tends to do better than in any other year.

Giovani Bernard had his best fantasy season as a rookie in 2013, where he finished as the 16th highest ranking running back. He was a 2nd round back. Since then his ranking has fallen in every year.

Jeremy Hill had his best fantasy season as a rookie in 2014, where he finished as the 10th highest scoring running back. He was a 2nd round back. Since then his ranking has fallen in every year.

Prior to these two, under Marvin Lewis only two other backs were taken in the first two rounds. Both Kenny Irons and Chris Perry had their rookie season lost due to injuries.

This year the Bengals have drafted another 2nd round back in Joe Mixon. He will be given every chance to succeed in his rookie season. Jeremy Hill is being kept around in case Mixon has trouble adapting to the NFL. The Bengals are basically done with Hill. He has run poorly and lost the confidence of the coaching staff. I do like Giovani Bernard this season, primarily due to his ability as a 3rd down back. Providing that Mixon is ready, Bernard will be the 3rd down/change of pace back and have a lot of success doing it. I would like to see how Mixon does through training camp and preseason before moving him up my board, but he has the highest upside of them all.

Stephen Holloway: I agree with most that Mixon (as long as he keeps his head on straight) will easily outshine Hill. Even if Hill gets carries early on, Mixon will take over the lead back role and banish Hill to the bench or worse. My unique take is that Giovani Bernard will maintain a role in the offense, possibly even more than the 30% to 35% share mentioned often. Over the four seasons of Bernard's NFL career, he has had 170, 168, 154 and 91 carries. The low mark was last year in an injury shortened season. He has garnered more than a 40% share of the carries split between their top two rushers and until last year had averaged 4.3 ypc, while also catching 3.4 passes per game played or 54 per full season. I expect that Bernard will have more opportunities than most have predicted, particularly if Hill is often inactive.

Ryan Hester: Those that have said Mixon will eventually take over for Hill seem to be on the right track. Hill has gotten measurably worse with each season, and the team seems very aware of his limitations.

But the argument seems to be when is "eventually?" Some have said that if Mixon's "takeover" isn't until a month or so into the season, then Mixon's price isn't worth paying. But let's look at the players (especially the running backs) being taken after Mixon in fantasy drafts.

There is a tier drop-off at the position behind Mixon, with Carlos Hyde, Danny Woodhead, Spencer Ware, and Doug Martin being selected after him. Mixon may not be a Week 1 workhorse, but each of those players has warts of their own.

At wide receiver, players on new teams (Alshon Jeffery), players on run-first units (Jarvis Landry), and boom-bust touchdown-dependent players (Davante Adams and Martavis Bryant) are all after Mixon.

While an undecided situation would suggest that Mixon isn't worth a fourth-round pick, the context of many being selected around him suggests he's worth a selection there even if you "only" get 10 weeks of majority production in the Cincinnati offense.

Phil Alexander: A few of the guys have mentioned how ineffective Hill has been already, but as I did my research for the Bengals Backfield Spotlight, it shocked me just how bad he's been across the board since his rookie year. Some interesting nuggets:

  • By most metrics, the Bengals had the best offensive line in the league in 2015. Hill still only managed 3.6 yards per rush attempt.
  • Of the 42 running backs who carried the ball at least 100 times in 2016, only Matt Asiata had a lower percentage of his runs go for 10+ yards than Hill’s 5.9%.
  • Over the last two seasons, Hill converted first downs on carries with two yards or less to go on 61% of his opportunities. 18 running backs have totaled at least 40 of these short yardage carries over the last two years, and only LeGarrette Blount (58.7%), Frank Gore (56.4%), and Chris Ivory (50%) have converted them into first downs less frequently than Hill.
  • Hill has been a consistent touchdown producer throughout his career, but last year his goal line touchdown conversion rate dipped to a career low 37.5% -- essentially the league average.

To sum it up, if Hill is only average at the goal line, ineffective in short yardage, can’t break long runs with regularity, isn’t a threat to catch the ball (and has never been known for his pass blocking ability), what good is he to the Bengals?

Cincinnati's front office rolled the dice on Mixon, and the only way they'll avoid snake eyes is immediate on-field production from the rookie that drowns out the protests of his deplorable past behavior. If Mixon is even half as good as some scouts say he is (LeVeon Bell comps have been tossed around plenty), he'll force Hill to the bench. Bernard seems to be ahead of schedule in his recovery from last November's ACL tear, but it's fair to assume he'll return to something less than his usual role due to Mixon's pass catching ability. And even if Bernard were to resume his 2013-2016 workload, it never stopped Hill from putting up fourth-round fantasy value or better.

Clayton Gray: Hellava summation there, Phil.

Justin Howe: Phil definitely nailed it. I don't see a Hill skillset that's not represented even better by Mixon.

Chris Feery: I agree with Chad that there’s some value to be gleaned in Hill’s current ADP. Expanding on that, perhaps the addition of Mixon will put a little more pep in his step. At a minimum, he’s a factor in the early part of the season. That could extend into the latter part of the year if Mixon doesn’t achieve the liftoff that everyone and their brother is anticipating. One final caveat - this is a contract year for Hill, so there’s a gigantic carrot hanging in front of him each time he touches the ball this year.

Early returns out of camp suggest that Bernard looks to be in fine shape. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on as the summer progresses, as he could be another interesting value in PPR leagues. As for Mixon, I’m passing at his current ADP and not losing any sleep over it. I’m always leery of players that have red flags around draft time, and that unfortunately applies to Mixon. While I sincerely hope he thrives in the NFL and that all of his issues are behind him, I’ll let someone else take the risk for fantasy purposes.