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Player Spotlight: Bengals Running Backs

A detailed look at the Bengal's running back's fantasy prospects for 2013.

For a 28 year-old running back that's scored 30 touchdowns in the past three years, BenJarvus Green-Ellis sure doesn't get a lot of credit. A lot of that is because Green-Ellis's upside is extremely limited. He's averaged less than four yards per carry over the past two seasons and his presence in the passing game is virtually non-existent. If you want to pound the ball up the middle for 3-4 yards, Green-Ellis is your man. Just don't expect anything else.

Because the Bengals would also like some more upside at the running back position, they drafted Giovani Bernard in the second round to complement, and possibly replace, Green-Ellis. Bernard is a smaller more explosive back that excels in the passing game. Most people don't believe Bernard has the size to be an every down back, and he certainly doesn't fit the role that the Bengals used Green-Ellis in last year. Bernard has the talent to be an excellent change-of-pace back, but how much will the Bengals use him?

For Giovani Bernard to be a factor in fantasy football the Bengals are going to have to change their offensive game plan. Last season the Bengals running backs ran the ball 355 times, and only 77 of those rushes came from backs other than Green-Ellis. The Bengals completed a paltry 43 passes to their backs in 2012, with Green-Ellis seeing more than 50% of those passes. Does the team change its philosophy because of the addition of Bernard? I would say that's probable, but we don't know how significant the change will be.

Andy Dalton is entering his third year as the Bengals quarterback, and I get the sense that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden would like to give him a little more freedom. After attempting 516 passes in his rookie season, Dalton threw 528 in year two. There was a time when 528 attempts was a ton for an NFL quarterback, but last year that number ranked 15th. It's possible that the Bengals throw it 550 times in 2013, especially if they incorporate more short passes to the backs.

I also believe it's likely that Bernard sees a larger share of the rushing load than last year's backups did. While there has been speculation that the split would be 50/50 between Green-Ellis and Bernard, that would require almost a complete overlhaul of the Bengals' running scheme. I'd expect the carries to be 2-1 in Green-Ellis' favor, with the bigger back logging around 200 totes.

The Bengals are not breaking ground with this thunder and lightning approach. The Giants combination of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs may be the most famous recent example, but teams have been doing this for a long time. This can lead to a serious increase in efficiency, but a lot of time it's difficult to figure out which back will have fantasy value.

From 2008-2011, Bradshaw and Jacobs shared the load in New York with mixed results in the fantasy world. Jacobs was still a RB1 in 2008, but both backs were borderline RB2s for the next 3 seasons. A similar effect has been seen in Buffalo the past few seasons with Fred Jackson limiting C.J. Spiller's potential until Jackson was sidelined with injuries. Green-Ellis' detractors would say he's not Jacobs or Jackson, but we've seen nothing to say that Bernard is Bradshaw or Spiller either.

The bottom line is that it's difficult to project either of these backs as fantasy starters in 2013. Bernard has the most upside, especially in PPR formats, but that upside will likely be limited by his size and the presence Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis is a good bet to continue to rack up virtually all of the goal line work, and should be counted on for another 8-10 touchdowns. If rumors of a 50/50 split prove true then we could see Bernard emerge as a RB2 in PPR, but even that seems like a stretch in his rookie campaign.

POSITIVES

  • This combination suits what the Bengals want to do very well, and should lead to increased efficiency from both players.
  • Bernard should count on a steady diet of screen passes and runs to the edge.
  • Green-Ellis should still score 8-10 touchdowns and should not be challenged for the red zone work.

NEGATIVES

  • These players significantly hurt the other's upside in 2013.
  • Neither player has the skill set to take over the other's role so it is difficult to see a true lead back emerging.

PROJECTIONS

BenJarvus Green-Ellis Projections

  RSH RSH YDS RSH TD REC REC YDS REC TD
Heath Cummings' Projections 210 840 8 8 90 0
David Dodds' Projections 200 790 6 14 90 0

Giovani Bernard Projections

  RSH RSH YDS RSH TD REC REC YDS REC TD
Heath Cummings' Projections 110 506 2 44 396 1
David Dodds' Projections 140 595 4 24 175 1

FINAL THOUGHTS

In standard scoring leagues the back to own is still Green-Ellis, in PPR it's much closer. Both backs will be hampered by the presence of the other, but there is possibly still some value to be found. Bernard is currently going off the board as the 30th running back while Green-Ellis has slid to RB33. People are clearly drafting Bernard based on his upside, and that's okay if you're willing to pay for it. In all honesty, the better value is probably less exciting Green-Ellis. It's difficult to see a scenario where he doesn't score enough touchdowns to stay relevant.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Nick Raducanu at Football.com wrote:

With the shallow depth of top running backs this season, it would be easy to look at the fact that BenJarvus Green-Ellis finished 2012 as the 19th-ranked running back and slot him in as a solid RB2. His 278 carries and 1,094 rushing yards look great on paper and seem to indicate that he’s a feature back, but treating him as such in 2013 will likely be a mistake that fantasy owners will regret.

Read more here.

Steven Jeffries at Fantasy Furnace wrote:

If the Bengals thought that Green-Ellis was their featured RB for years to come, they would not have gone out and drafted Giovani Bernard in the 2nd round last April.

Read more here.

Dave Richard at CBS Sportsline wrote:

The Bengals couldn't have been happy with their 24th-ranked run game last season: No one stepped up as a complementary back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who underwhelmed despite a career-high 1,094 rush yards. Bernard should not only take a cut of the rushing workload off of Green-Ellis' plate but also eventually overtake him as the primary threat in the offense because of his versatility -- he's a solid pass catcher.

Read more here.

Contact Heath at cummings@footballguys.com or on Twitter @heathcummingssr.


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