Yesterday, the Cincinnati Bengals announced that they have agreed to terms with fourth-year running back Giovani Bernard on a three-year extension, which will reportedly consist of three years and $15.5 million in new money. Bernard was the top running back drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft, with the 37th overall selection in the second round.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, of course, drafted the second running back in the class when they added Le’Veon Bell later in the second round, with the 48th overall selection. The Packers later added Eddie Lacy, whom many viewed as the top back entering the draft, and he was awarded with the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and named to the Pro Bowl.
Bell exploded onto the scene in his second season, named as a first-team All-Pro after rushing for 1361 yards and adding another 854 receiving yards, the total of both representing a franchise record in terms of yards from scrimmage in a single season.
In his third season, he was on pace for another All-Pro season after he rushed for 556 yards on 113 carries in less than six games before suffering a season-ending injury. That injury could potentially play a role in the team’s decision on whether or not to extend him later this summer.
What won’t really factor into the equation is Bernard’s contract, because he plays a very different role in the Bengals’ offense. Unlike with the Steelers, where Bell is the clear number one back, the Bengals apply a two-headed approach along with third-year running back Jeremy Hill, who is the primary ball-carrier.
In three seasons, Bernard has never rushed for 750 yards in a season, totaling 2105 rushing yards on 492 career rushing attempts, which equates to an average of 4.3 yards per carry. While his speed and athleticism make him a threat on any given carry, he is not an every-down back in the sense of carrying the ball 300 times a year.
Much of his production has come through the air, as he averages just under 50 receptions per season, totaling 148 for 1335 yards, an average of nine yards per reception. Five of his career 17 touchdowns have come as a receiver rather than as a runner.
Hill, who was a second-round pick in 2014, became the Bengals’ primary ball-carrier fairly early on, as he started eight games as a rookie while rushing for 1124 yards on 222 carries. While he added another 223 carries last season in 16 games, he only amassed 794 rushing yards, his yards per carry figure deflating all the way down to 3.6, though he tied for the league lead with 11 rushing touchdowns.
In contrast, however, Hill only caught 15 receptions last season, while Bernard caught 49. The two backs offer different skill sets that the Bengals choose to exploit in different roles as complementary players. That is why Bernard’s contract was fairly simple to get done, and why it doesn’t reflect the sort of salary that Bell will command, even if the monetary value of the position has deflated in recent years.