The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but the team is still searching for their first playoff win since 1990.
In an effort to take that next step, the Bengals spent their first two draft picks on offensive skill positions in 2013, first selecting Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert before making North Carolina's Giovani Bernard the first running back selected in the second round.
At first glance, the Bernard pick may have struck some as odd. After all, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who joined the Bengals in free agency a year ago, topped 1,000 yards on the ground in 2012, and at only 27, the "Law Firm" is in the prime of his career.
However, there's plenty of reasons to like the Bernard pick if you're a Bengals fan, as the youngster could add an entirely new dimension to the Cincinnati offense.
With all due respect to Green-Ellis, he's the very definition of a plodder. Green-Ellis is a bruising, between-the-tackles, "three yards and a cloud of dust" type, and while he did top 1,000 yards in 2012, Green-Ellis also averaged less than four yards a carry doing it.
The 5'8", 202-pound Bernard, on the other hand, is a much different animal in the backfield. Bernard is a smaller, quicker back who relies on his agility and quickness to generate yardage. Bernard is also a very dangerous receiver, as evidenced by his 92 receptions over the past two years at North Carolina.
It's a classic "thunder and lightning" backfield scenario.
This isn't to say that Bernard is guaranteed a prominent role in the Cincinnati offense; offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told Geoff Hobson of the team's website that Bernard will compete with fellow rookie Rex Burkhead for the third-down role with the Bengals, although he also lauded the skill set that Bernard brings to the Queen City.
[Bernard is] a unique back with the skill set that doesn't have to be a 25-carry guy. He can be a 10-15 carry guy, catch eight balls, whatever it is, to help us out and make us more diverse. It a great position to be in. To be able draft talent and specialty needs as opposed to starters.
However, in my opinion it's in Gruden's (and the team's) best interests to look at Giovani Bernard as more than "just" a third-down back.
For a blueprint on how Gruden could look to best utilize the two ball-carriers, he need look no further than the New York Giants teams of a few years back.
In both 2007 and 2008, the Giants had a very similar situation in the backfield, with Brandon Jacobs in the Green-Ellis role and Derrick Ward playing the part of Giovani Bernard.
Jacobs was the lead back, the hammer who picked up tough yards and wore down defenses. Ward served as the change-of-pace back and a receiver out of the backfield.
It was a carry-share that worked well for the Giants. In 2007, the Giants ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing and won the Super Bowl. In 2008, the team gained over 157 yards a game on the ground—tops in the NFL—and won 12 games en route to a division title.
Ward was much more than just a third-down back for those teams; he topped 150 total touches in 2007, and that number grew to over 220 in 2008, when Ward also chipped in over 40 catches.
By the 2009 season, the roles began to reverse, as Jacobs' production declined and Ahmad Bradshaw began to assert himself as the lead back in the Big Apple.
Gruden and the Bengals should adopt a similar course of action with Bernard and Green-Eillis.
In the early-going as Bernard acclimates to the NFL, it's Green-Ellis who should receive the majority of the carries. Then, assuming that Bernard begins to perform as advertised, increase his workload until the Bengals are running almost an even split in the backfield.
Thunder and lightning. The bull and the ballerina (not the best metaphor, but I'm trying to alliterate here!).
Giovani Bernard might not have the frame to withstand 300-plus carries a season, but 225 or so is well within reason. That's going to both cut down on the punishment that Green-Ellis takes and also open up a Cincinnati offense that has grown a tad too predictable.
The Bengals need to do a better job of keeping opposing defenses honest instead of allowing them to load the box against Green-Ellis and then blanket A.J. Green in coverage on third down.
Bernard's ability to hurt defenses as a pass-catcher could do just that, whereas a fresh Green-Ellis would be a very nice option as a "closer" blasting away at tired defenses.
Never mind that using two viable backs properly could allow the Bengals to dominate time of possession. It may be an antiquated notion, but the fact remains that your opponent can't score if they don't have the ball.
This isn't meant as a knock on Green-Ellis, but to be frank, he is what he is: a very good (but not great) bulldozer of a running back. He can move the sticks, but he does it in one manner and one manner only.
Bernard is a much more versatile weapon. I'll freely admit that I felt headed into the draft he was the top player at his position available in this year's class, and I like the pick for the Bengals.
Now, it's just a matter of using him properly.