Despite needing to add to their stable of running backs in 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals opted to bring in just one rookie via the draft—Dan Herron, whom they selected in Round 6—and anticipated putting most of their running eggs into two baskets—free-agent acquisition BenJarvus Green-Ellis and fourth-year Bengals back Bernard Scott.
However, Scott's 2012 was riddled with injury—first, one to his hand that dogged him throughout the preseason, then an ankle sprain that had him miss one game and finally suffering an ACL tear in Week 5 that ended his season. He's now about to become an unrestricted free agent and probably won't return to Cincinnati for the 2013 season.
Fellow Bengals backs Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard are also both unrestricted free agents this year, making Green-Ellis the only guaranteed player at the position to return to the Bengals as of now. Clearly, Cincinnati will need to make at least one addition at running back this offseason, but the question remains whether they'll do so via free agency, the NFL draft or a combination of the two.
Of the three impending free agents, Peerman seems to be the most likely to return, considering how effective his special teams contributions have been. But the Bengals will still need to bring on at least one other running back to complement Green-Ellis—someone shifty and fast to provide a change-of-pace to Green-Ellis' straightforward style.
With about $55 million in cap space to work with, the Bengals could certainly have their pick of the impending free-agent running back class—it just depends on whether or not owner Mike Brown would be willing to spend. It also depends on whether or not there's a good change-of-pace back to be found among the veterans available.
A name that immediately stands out is Reggie Bush. Bush, who rushed 219 times for 960 yards—a 4.4 yards-per-carry average—and six touchdowns, certainly does have the kind of shifty speed that the Bengals need, as well as the experience that would benefit their entire young offense.
However, the price tag could be a bit outside the range Brown is comfortable paying, Bush has been rather inconsistent over the course of his career and he could be in high demand once free agency opens. He's worth being on the Bengals' radar, but he shouldn't be their only target.
The Bengals could also choose to reunite Green-Ellis with his former Patriots teammate Danny Woodhead, who performed well as the speedy, change-of-pace back behind Green-Ellis in 2010 and 2011. It's a familiar one-two punch that was certainly effective in New England, but he may opt to stay with the Patriots and take a pay cut to do so.
Should the current crop of free-agent backs not interest the Bengals—or, should the Bengals prefer to have their own homegrown talent who can contribute for numerous seasons—then the draft will be the next option.
This is a fairly strong running back draft class, giving the Bengals a number of opportunities to grab either a feature or change-of-pace back. They don't necessarily have to splash out and use a first-or second-round pick on Alabama's Eddie Lacy unless they're completely sold on him. And with Lacy's best asset being that he's a north-south power runner, he's too close in profile to Green-Ellis.
Clemson's Andre Ellington's style is more what the Bengals are looking for—shifty and very fast—and if he pans out in the NFL, could be the league's next C.J. Spiller (who, not coincidentally, also came from Clemson). Though he could be a better receiver and has certain raw elements to his game as well as a few injury concerns and a smallish size, he won't need to be an every-down contributor for the Bengals, making him worthy of their second- or third-round pick.
Regardless of how the Bengals approach it, they cannot ignore their need for a fast back to help out Green-Ellis. Though he performed acceptably when thrown into an every-down role in 2012 because of Scott's injuries, they need to have a more multifaceted ground attack in 2013. Free agency could at least provide the Bengals with a proven commodity as well as additional veteran leadership, but they would also be well-served to use an early-round pick on someone young and fast.
Considering how the Bengals basically avoided the position in last year's draft, it seems increasingly more likely that they go for it this year. Though going younger and younger on offense is a risky move, they'll apt to get more mileage out of a first-year back—especially the kind of blazingly fast one they need—than to go with someone who has been in the NFL for four or six years.