Is Giovani Bernard Ready to Break into NFL's Running Back Elite?

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Is Giovani Bernard Ready to Break into NFL's Running Back Elite?
Giovani Bernard is set to be a star in Hue Jackson's Bengals offense, but will that propel him into the elite level of NFL running backs?

Giovani Bernard was easily the most electrifying member of the Cincinnati Bengals' offense in 2013. In his first year, he rushed just 170 times, but it netted him 695 yards and five scores. He was also a force in the passing game, with 56 catches on 71 targets for 514 yards and three touchdowns. 

On only 226 touches, Bernard totaled 1,209 yards and eight scores. This year, he's expected to get even more work with Hue Jackson as his new offensive coordinator. Will that be enough to make him one of the NFL's top backs?

Jackson is certainly excited about the possibilities of Bernard this year, saying "He's going to have a lot [of carries], I can promise you" in February, while praising Bernard's toughness. In a run-focused offense under Jackson, the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. expects Bernard to have 230 carries along with 70 receptions. 

Giovani Bernard's 2013
Atts. Yds. YPA Rush TD Tgts. Rec. Rec. Yds. Rec. TD Snaps Snaps %*
170 695 4.1 5 71 56 514 3 627 56.1%

via ESPN & Pro Football Focus (subscription required); * Snap % includes playoffs

At 4.1 yards per carry, which is Bernard's average from 2013, 230 rushes would yield 943 yards. Fourteen running backs surpassed that yardage total in 2013, including the proven elite like LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte and the less-so (but still quite good), like Knowshon Moreno and Ryan Mathews. Two, Reggie Bush and DeMarco Murray, had more than 943 yards on fewer carries than the 230 Dehner projects for Bernard this season.

Numbers like that would put Bernard solidly in the "very good" category for running backs in 2014, but it doesn't put him in the "elite" column. However, it's more about what he does for the Bengals this season than where his numbers rank in relation to other running backs around the league.

What Dehner was saying in his predictions for Bernard is that he will be a much greater part of Cincinnati's offense in 2014. Bernard's 2013 season appears to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his potential.  

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Bernard's all-around skill set—rusher, blocker, receiver—will get him on the field even more often this year.

Bernard had more on-field time than fellow Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis last year, playing 627 offensive snaps compared to 472 for Green-Ellis, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

That was way below the total 1,155 offensive snaps the Bengals played last season, but Bernard made his impact felt as a rusher, receiver and blocker to the point that Pro Football Focus named him their No. 3 running back on the season. In contrast, Green-Ellis carried the ball more times, with 220 attempts, but only had 61 more rushing yards.

This year, Bernard will again be part of a timeshare at running back, splitting most of his carries with rookie Jeremy Hill while Green-Ellis transitions into a veteran depth role with minimal touches. However, with the run game a greater focus of the offense and Bernard's rushes on the rise, he'll have even more chances to make the most of his time on the field. 

Rookie Jeremy Hill will eat into some of Bernard's carries, just as BenJarvus Green-Ellis did last year.

The real appeal of Bernard is that he's more than a running back. His ability to catch passes reliably makes him an asset to quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw the majority of his passes from zero to nine yards off the line of scrimmage last year.

With Bernard having caught 78.9 percent of the passes thrown to him last year, the sweep and bubble screen game for the Bengals becomes an important part of their arsenal and not just a way for Dalton to check down under pressure.

It's clear that even with less playing time, Bernard can hold his own with the league's top backs on a touch-for-touch basis. But it's hard to include him in the "elite" category when he's a three-down capable back who isn't going to be used on every down because the Bengals want variety in their running game. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
With Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator, the Bengals are going to run more this year. That, however, does not automatically mean 300 or more carries for Bernard.

Bernard needs to be a 300-rush running back—not a 300-touch one—in order to truly be viewed among the Marshawn Lynches and Frank Gores of the NFL. He appears able to handle such a workload, but that would strip the Bengals of having variety in their run game.

Bernard has elite-level skills but the Bengals won't rely solely on him because they simply do not have to. Certainly, Jackson wants to maximize the impact that Bernard has and is very excited about what he's capable of doing, but that's not likely to equate to 300 rushes for 1,200 or more yards and an additional 70 receptions. 

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What it comes down to is how elite running backs are categorized. Considering Bernard's production last year relative to the amount of touches he had and how that will increase under Jackson's system, then it's obvious that Bernard is a top-tier talent in the NFL. 

However, if eliteness for a running back comes down to the number of rushes he has, the rushing yardage total and rushing touchdown total at the end of the season, then Bernard is just shy of that elite group, solely based on how he's used. 

Either way, the Bengals are aware of the explosive, game-changing player they have in Bernard and they have a coordinator in Jackson who will use him as much as it fits the overarching offensive game plan. Because of this, Bernard is certainly set to have an even better season than the last.

He may not have the highest rushing numbers in the league, but Bernard's elite skills are more valuable to the Bengals than him putting up elite stats.

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