Giovani Bernard is heading into his second year with the Cincinnati Bengals ready to make a splash. The 2013 second-round draft pick turned heads in his rookie season despite splitting carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but this year he could steal the show with Hue Jackson as his new offensive coordinator.
Jackson was promoted from running backs coach to coordinator after Jay Gruden left to take Washington's head coaching job. He is known for a run-heavy approach since he was offensive coordinator and head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2010 and 2011. It is expected that the Bengals will run the ball more often under his command in 2014, which will only mean good things for Bernard.
Bernard wasn't the leading rookie rusher last season; that title belonged to Green Bay's Eddie Lacy, who had 1,178 yards on his 284 attempts. Still, Bernard made an impact, coming in third in rushing yardage among rookie backs, with 695 yards, despite rushing far less often than the three who outpaced him, with just 170 attempts.
However, Bernard led all rookie running backs in receiving yards, with 514 yards and three touchdowns on 56 receptions—nearly 100 yards more than the next-highest receiving total, belonging to St. Louis' offensive weapon Tavon Austin, and over 100 yards more than the third-ranked Le'Veon Bell of Pittsburgh, who is more of a pure running back.
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This versatility paired with a larger workload presents Bernard with the chance to be one of the leading playmakers in the NFL this season. After the team drafted Bernard in 2013, Jackson said: "He has that skill set where I think he could play and be an every down player." Bernard is exactly the type of back needed in Jackson's system.
Looking back to Jackson's two seasons with Oakland provides clues for how big a year Bernard could be poised to have.
In 2010, the Raiders rushed 504 times—the fourth-most attempts in the league—for the second-highest rushing yardage and touchdown totals, with 2,494 and 19, respectively. In 2011, they were seventh in rushing attempts (466), rushing yards (2,110) and rushing touchdowns (16).
In both years, the rushing attack was led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. However, running the ball wasn't all they were asked to do. McFadden had 223 rushing attempts in 2010, for 1,157 yards and seven scores on 5.2 yards per carry. However, he also had 47 receptions for 507 yards and three touchdowns.
In 2011, with McFadden sidelined much of the year with a foot injury, Bush took over the team's primary running back duties. He had 256 carries, netting him 977 yards and seven scores, while he also caught 37 passes for 418 yards and a touchdown.
Clearly, backs in Jackson's system need to be able to run and catch, which gives Bernard the edge over Green-Ellis in 2014. Green-Ellis had nearly 100 more rushing yards than Bernard in 2013, but he didn't do much as a receiver, catching only four passes on eight targets for 22 yards and no scores.
Where last year Green-Ellis and Bernard were a thunder-and-lightning duo, Jackson's history seems to point to a lot more flash and a little less noise this year.
Bernard is excited about the opportunity Jackson's promotion has afforded him, saying on NFL Network's NFL AM in February that he expects Jackson to install the "craziest playbook ever." And Jackson's praise of Bernard later that month at the scouting combine also points to big things ahead.
Jackson noted how willing Bernard is to hit and be hit—dating all the way back to his rookie training camp experience. He recalled how defensive players would remark on Bernard even before the running back had played an NFL snap, saying, per ESPN.com's Coley Harvey: "I remember those guys on defense coming up to me one day in stretch. There was Rey Maualuga, we're talking about Vontaze Burfict, and even some of the defensive linemen. They were all saying, 'Hey, Coach. That guy can play.'"
How well did Bernard do as a rookie? To see his true value, we must look beyond just his rushing and receiving numbers for 2013.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bernard was one of the most elusive running backs in the league, creating 44 combined missed tackles as both a rusher and receiver. He ranked sixth among all backs in pass protection and sixth in yards per pass route run, with 1.70 yards gained for each time he ran a route as a receiver. And Bernard accomplished all of this while playing just 56.1 percent of the Bengals' offensive snaps.
Jackson was asked about Bernard's workload for 2014 at the combine. Though he didn't delve into the specifics of his plans for the running back, he did say about his number of carries, per Harvey: "He's going to have a lot. I can promise you."
Bernard's 2013 performance certainly proves that he deserves a larger role in Cincinnati's offense. The fact that he fits the mold of the perfect Jackson-style running back means he should accomplish big things, both as a rusher and a receiver, in 2014.
With more touches, Bernard could rival A.J. Green as the Bengals' biggest playmaker this season. A dangerous offense just may become that much scarier with Jackson tasked with tapping Bernard's considerable potential.