Hidden Gems: Cincinnati Bengals’ UDFA Sleeper

The Cincinnati Bengals may not have the most talented offense in the league, but they don’t fail to make up for it with depth. At running back, they have some particularly intriguing options. Jeremy Hill surprised many pundits with a solid rookie season, but he took a large step back last year. Gio Bernard has the athletic ability to be a top-tier back in this league, but has yet to truly put it together. Aging journeyman special team captain Cedric Peerman and utility back/slot receiver/jack of all trades Rex Burkhead round out the stable of ball-carriers.
Enter Tra Carson, their undrafted free agent addition to the RB corps. Carson is a burly figure at 5111, 227 and put together some solid production during his time as a Texas A&M Aggie. After playing one season for Oregon in 2011, Carson transferred to Texas A&M and put together three campaigns. From his junior to senior year, Carson improved his numbers from 124 carries for 581 yards and 5 TDs to 242 carries for 1165 yards and 7 TDs, adding 29 receptions for 183 yards and a score.
With the rock, Carson runs with authority, intent on punishment. He has good pad level and is prepared to deliver a pop to any would-be tacklers. That stays true for him in pass blocking, where he seems to relish getting his nose dirty and taking shots up through the chin strap of pass rushers. He squares well to deliver these hits, with his hips parallel to the oncoming rusher.
Carson has what I’ve heard described as “quick feet but slow legs.” That is to say, his footwork is tidy and swift, able to get him out of trouble in a hurry with a deceptive burst. However, when he hits the open field, he lacks a breakaway gear to truly run away from any defenders: hence, the title “quick feet but slow legs.” Carson lacks the speed to have to turn the corner under pressure, either, making him a slow target sideline-to-sideline. However, between the tackles, he has a nice wiggle to his hips that makes him just difficult enough for a linebacker to stop so as to force missed tackles.
Carson also runs with a dubious pad level, leading to him getting knocked off his center of gravity relatively easily. He also has experience split out wide as a receiver, and while he’s lacking in the same tools that make Burkhead effective there (route-running ability), it does help him to have seen the field from that perspective too. Ultimately, as a running back, his vision and decision-making hurt him rather than help, as he’s too reliant on trying to find a hole that isn’t there rather than just getting north-south.
 The Bengals already have a group of backs with clearly well-defined roles. Hill the lead back, runner between the tackles; Bernard the change of pace and third-down back; Peerman the specific special teamer and Burkhead the “everything else” guy. Tra Carson could easily slide in as a situational runner, and he has the talent to make an impact on this squad. Although his size would suggest a short-yardage back (which with his physicality is a job he could easily take on), his actual athleticism and footwork suggests he has a higher ceiling. He will certainly need to develop his vision, but his pass-blocking could win him a roster spot if nothing else.

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