Despite last year’s marquee free agent addition, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, rushing for over 1,000 yards in his debut season, the Cincinnati Bengals appear set on adding another runner to the roster this off-season. Not only do they seem set on adding another runner, but they are in the market for a back who can do “something special.” Although Green-Ellis was productive in 2012, his performances were far from special.
Green-Ellis may have gained 1,094 yards on 278 carries with six touchdowns and just three fumbles, but most of that production could be attributed to the outstanding work of the Bengals’ offensive line. Green-Ellis was consistently running through wide open holes and getting into the secondary without having to break tackles. That is something very few running-backs get at this level. Green-Ellis had 10 runs of 15+ yards during the season, which tied him for 14th best in the league, but only forced 19 missed tackles on running plays, good enough for 19th in the league.
In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Green-Ellis ranked 23rd, or second to last amongst those backs qualifying, in the league on the website’s elusive rating rankings.
Green-Ellis is not a bad running-back. He is reliable as a pass catcher, pass blocker and will consistently take care of the football. However, the Cincinnati Bengals are a team that is committed to the run. If you are to commit your offense to the run in today’s NFL, then you can’t just have any average running-back behind your quarterback. You need a player who can break off big runs and make different things happen in all aspects of the game. A player who can do “something special” is a very vague statement, but essentially you need a running-back who can create on his own, without relying on the work of his offensive linemen.
The Bengals have plenty of options. This year’s draft class is very deep at the running back position. Having Green-Ellis in position to carry the majority of the load affords them the option to bring in a development back also. However, if the Bengals wanted to both upgrade the production on the field and acquire a developmental back through the draft, that option is available.
Reggie Bush and Rashard Mendenhall are the two most high-profile free agent running-backs this off-season. Both are former first round picks who have shown game-changing potential at different stages during their careers. Bush has proven himself with the Miami Dolphins as capable of being a feature back, after initially being questioned as a bust, while Mendenhall has endured his own struggles at times with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bush will definitely be more expensive than Mendenhall. Even though the Bengals can afford Bush, it would be more prudent to try and lure Mendenhall away from the Steelers.
His reputation may have taken some hits this past year, but most of his struggles were a result of his handling as much as his own personal responsibility. Prior to tearing his ACL at the end of the 2011 season, Mendenhall had been a key figure in the Steelers’ balanced attack. Explaining what the now 25-year-old back’s career was like up until this year, you could say it was the exact opposite of what Green-Ellis did this year. Mendenhall had two 1,000+ yard seasons in 2009 and 2010, with 20 rushing touchdowns and 48 receptions. He fumbled the ball six times during the three seasons from 2009 to 2011, on 860 total touches.
Numbers don’t explain everything that Mendenhall has done in his career however. For the most part, those numbers were earned running behind a below average offensive line. Mendenhall was forced to work for every single yard he earned throughout his career. The Steelers’ line hasn’t been comparable to the Bengals’ line over the past few seasons. Instead of running through holes, Mendenhall has spent his time fighting through slivers between bodies upfront. Combine that with the fact he carried the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended to begin the 2010 season and it’s clear that Mendenhall isn’t just a complementary piece.
Yet, what of this past season? A season when Mendenhall fumbled three times on just 60 touches, became an inactive, was suspended and finished the season with just one receiving touchdown. Well, none of the Steelers’ backs impressed this year, as the offensive line failed to produce lanes for them to run through. Mendenhall also returned late in the season after his torn ACL, while he then suffered an Achilles injury after impressing in his first start against the Philadelphia Eagles. Considering how much practice Mendenhall had missed and how many setbacks he had suffered, the Steelers didn’t handle him properly in his return.
Even Adrian Peterson was somewhat eased back into action when he returned from his ACL tear. Mendenhall was expected to carry the load immediately and was benched after struggling early. The Steelers ignored everything he had done for them in the past and made a knee-jerk reaction to bench their most talented running-back. Because of that, he likely won’t return to Pittsburgh, making him an option for the 31 other teams in the league.
If the Bengals can be that team that look objectively at Mendenhall’s work throughout his whole career, and consider how a full preseason and healthy body will help him on the field, they could find a diamond in the rough for their backfield next season.