The NFL season is just over a month away with the coming of the NFL Hall of Fame game on August 3rd. The whirlwind of another season will follow, with new storylines, new front-runners and, most interestingly, new stars. For a stacked Cincinnati Bengals team, one of those new stars could make the difference in the rugged AFC North, and there's no more intriguing talent than running back Giovani Bernard.
Player predictions in late June always seem to have a "shot in the dark" element to them, but Bernard is a player that warrants discussion following an 11-5 season where he contributed 695 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, as well as 514 yards receiving with three touchdowns as the offense's receiving back.
Sure... over 1,200 all-purpose yards (1,209 total - 40th in the NFL) is exceptional in its own right, but I believe that Bernard will play even a larger role in the 2014 season considering his immense talent and the introduction of Hue Jackson as Cincinnati's new offensive coordinator.
First of all, we need to acknowledge the skills that Bernard brings to the offense. He is tremendous in the open field, possessing great quickness and top-flight speed the Bengals haven't seen in a number one runner since perhaps Corey Dillon.
Despite adjusting to the NFL game as a rookie, Bernard played capably as a pass protector and is exceptional catching the ball out of the backfield. While questions remain about his ability to be a workhorse back, the Bengals drafted LSU's Jeremy Hill to be the physical runner and spare Bernard some hits. Bernard's potential alone is intriguing, but what could push him into the stratosphere is having Jackson as offensive coordinator.
First of all, we can assume Hill and Bernard are the guys in Cincinnati. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been seeing second-team reps behind the two youngsters and with "The Law Firm" turning 29 on July 2nd, he'll most likely be out the door by Week 1 (his contract is too big for a third-string back anyway).
Now, the reason why Jackson makes all the difference here is due to his offensive philosophy - essentially a power run game that simplifies the passing attack for the quarterback. That not only means that quarterback Andy Dalton should look better this season, but also means that the running backs will see many more carries with the expectation of improving on Cincinnati's 18th ranked rushing attack from a year ago.
More intriguing to Bengals fans is Jackson's resume when it comes to implementing this punishing style of attack. Remember, he was with Oakland in 2010 as the offensive coordinator and in 2011 as the head coach. In 2010, the Raiders were second in the league in rushing with 155.9 yards per game.
Starting running back Darren McFadden finished with 1,157 yards on the ground in what will probably be the best season of his injury-riddled career. In 2011, Oakland was seventh in the NFL in rushing (131.9 yards per game), despite McFadden only playing in seven games and rushing for 614 yards (which led the NFL when he went on injured reserve). Bernard and McFadden are very different backs, but the point remains that Jackson knows how to get the best out of talented players - particularly running backs.
With Green-Ellis most likely on his way out and a new offensive coordinator reestablishing the run game in Cincinnati, Bernard could be the league's breakout player in 2014. Bernard touched the ball 226 times last season (170 rushing attempts and 56 catches) and managed 1,206 total yards. He'll certainly be touching the ball more than that this season, and with his ability, Bernard could make a huge impact on an already-stacked Cincinnati team. He fits the bill of a rising star in this league, and could be in for a huge 2014.
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