Nothing will give a fantasy football owner a bigger headache that the words “running back by committee.” But with bell-cow backs few and far between nowadays, backfields split between two different players has become the new norm.
In Cincinnati this year, though, the backfield will be divided three ways among Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon. Well, at least that’s the way it has been advertised. Let’s take a deeper look at the value of each Bengals running back going into 2017.
All the preseason hype has surrounded Mixon and for good reason, but the safest play from the Bengals backfield is Bernard. Though the 25-year-old is still recovering from an ACL tear, Bernard remains the surest thing at running back for Cincinnati because he will return as the third-down back. That’s a role at which he has always excelled.
In 2015, Bernard was one of the best third-down backs in the NFL and was a major reason the Bengals won 12 games. He had his best year rushing that season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and chipped in with 49 receptions and 472 receiving yards. It added up to 1,200 yards from scrimmage, a mark Bernard reached twice in his first three seasons.
Last year was disappointing for him, mostly because of the injury. Bernard actually averaged a career-high 33.6 receiving yards per game and was on pace for a career-best 62 catches before his ACL tear. Had he maintained the same pace and played all 16 games, he would have reached 1,000 yards from scrimmage for a fourth straight year.
The addition of Mixon doesn’t really change anything with Bernard. He is much more valuable in PPR leagues, but as long as his knee is healthy, 1,000 scrimmage yards is once again possible for Bernard. His floor appears to be 800 scrimmage yards and a few touchdowns — or about 100 fantasy points in standard leagues.
That’s not something either Mixon or Hill can guarantee, which makes Bernard the “safest” play.
But as good fantasy owners know, championships can’t be won with “safe” decisions all the time. If owners are willing to take more of a risk, then Mixon is a player on whom to roll the dice.
The rookie played a lot this preseason, recording 78 rushing yards and 32 receiving yards on 23 touches. While the additional playing time certainly helped, he was unquestionably the team’s best back in August, showing great balance and explosiveness. That leads him to have the best upside of the three Bengals backs.
But how much Hill eats into his carries remains to be seen. Hill is still listed as the starter, so he’s also probably a safer play than Mixon in Week 1.
But there’s not much exciting about the 24-year-old. After a masterful rookie year where Hill ran for 1,124 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry, he has averaged 3.7 yards per rushing attempt the past two years. His only saving grace is his 20 touchdowns during 2015 and 2016 combined.
Hill could continue as the Bengals starter for four or five weeks. Perhaps it’s even longer. But it’s also conceivable that Mixon cuts into Hill’s goal-line work, as both backs weigh about 230 pounds.
For Week 1, it’s probably best to play neither back to wait and see what transpires against the Baltimore Ravens. The best-case scenario for both would be for Mixon to become the starter but Hill to remain the top goal-line option.
Should that happen, all three will possess value. Injuries, of course, can change anything very quickly, but entering the season, Bernard is the safe play, Mixon possesses the highest ceiling, and Hill is … well, the starter.
Yeah, I’m starting to get a headache.
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