Bengals position outlook: Running backs

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
1:00
PM ET
With the offseason here, let's spend the next two weeks taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.

After quarterbacks Monday, up next:

RUNNING BACKS

2014 free agents: None.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsMoving forward, the key for the Bengals with Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is figuring out how to use them in a more balanced fashion.
The good: Paced primarily by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard, the Bengals had a rushing attack that ranked in the middle of the league's pack. While their No. 18 rush offense ranking wasn't much to be proud of, their two top backs combined for more than 1,400 yards. Bernard, a rookie, was just five yards shy of 700 for the season. He also was factored heavily in the Bengals' passing game, catching 56 passes out of the backfield for 514 yards en route to being named to the Pro Football Writers of America's all-rookie team. The tandem of the power-running Green-Ellis and the shifty, elusive Bernard worked well this season. If the Bengals can figure out how to use them in a more balanced fashion next season, the contrasting styles could lead to even greater success in the immediate future.

The bad: The biggest problem with the Bengals' running backs is that they weren't used enough in key situations. Bernard and Green-Ellis ran the ball a combined 20 times in Cincinnati's first-round playoff loss to the Chargers. In the fourth quarter alone of that same game, the Bengals passed 31 times. Along with struggling to find a good run-pass balance under former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the Bengals also didn't get the greatest run production from Green-Ellis early in the season. Nagging injuries slowed him at the start of the year. Once he got over them, he was able to perform better the deeper into the season he got. Another problem was the fact they didn't quite figure out what they wanted to do about the fullback position. Chris Pressley was hurt before the season and was placed on the physically unable to perform list. He was ultimately released after coming off the PUP list. He was one of two fullbacks who were released after tight end Orson Charles was moved to the H-back position. For now, the Bengals appear poised to keep him in that role and to continue using tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham, and defensive tackle Domata Peko in certain run-blocking packages.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Green-Ellis ($3 million), Bernard ($1.2 million), Cedric Peerman ($1.1 million), Orson Charles ($677,325), Rex Burkhead ($520,550). Cincinnati appears poised to keep the same running back rotation next season, led primarily by the veteran Green-Ellis, who will be one of two backs whose contracts expire at the end of 2014. It will be during the 2015 offseason that the Bengals decide on re-signing Green-Ellis, who will turn 30 just before that year's training camp. The success in 2014 of the power and finesse one-two punch that he and Bernard have will be a key factor in determining if the Bengals want to bring him back. It's clear Bernard is a player who Cincinnati wants to build itself around, patterning his growth and development along similar lines as receiver A.J. Green's. Peerman's contract also will be up at the end of next season, with Charles and Burkhead on board through the 2015 and 2016 seasons, respectively. The 2014 season was a sort of redshirt year for Burkhead, who could either become a third back in the Bengals' rotation or eventually turn into the counter to Bernard's speed threat in the future.

Draft priority: Very low. The Bengals have no reason to add a tailback in the draft and seem poised to keep Charles around as a blocking H-back. It's possible the Bengals could bring in a fullback as an undrafted free agent, but don't expect them to use their picks on a back. Bernard and Burkhead took care of running back needs last season.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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