CINCINNATI -- A word from Bengals training camp to all you fantasy football fans as draft day looms. The man who led the NFL in rushing over the course of the final nine weeks of the 2014 season -- by triple digits, no less -- has some advice when it comes to picking a lead horse in your stable of running backs:
“I think I’d pick me,’’ said second-year Bengals rusher Jeremy Hill, moments after a Friday evening practice wraps at Cincinnati’s camp, just across the street from Paul Brown Stadium. “I wouldn’t be a bad choice, so don’t forget about me.’’
Hill doesn’t play fantasy football, but he said he might have to “check it out and see what the hype’s about’’ this season, because “it’s the main topic (of conversation) every time I walk in somewhere anyway.’’ People want to know if he can reproduce his emergence over the second half of his rookie season, when his 929 yards gained in Weeks 9-17 104 yards more than the league’s next most productive rusher, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch with 824?
Alas, Hill’s former collegiate teammate, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., was not the only ex-LSU star to burst onto the NFL scene in the latter stages of 2014. Beckham’s breath-taking rookie season was certainly more spectacular, but the Bengals rode on Hill’s broad back to a fourth consecutive playoff trip last year, with Cincinnati’s ground game ranking second in the league over the season’s final nine weeks, trailing only Super Bowl-bound Seattle during that span.
Once Hill started running downhill, taking over the lead back role in place of the injured Giovanni Bernard in Week 9, the Bengals took off, winning six of their final nine games, with Hill cranking out five different 100-yard rushing games, with four efforts of at least 147 yards. His total of 1,124 yards ranked eighth overall in the NFL, and his 5.1-yard average was fifth-best in the league. Hill was a second-round pick in 2014, but wound up exhibiting clear-cut No. 1 back production and potential.
“During the season, when you’re winning games, you’re losing games, it’s just a rollercoaster mentally and emotionally,’’ Hill said. “You don’t really get to sit back and get a sense of your accomplishments until the offseason, soaking it all in. But last year definitely built my confidence to where it is now. Now when I get out there, I’m expected to do certain things, and obviously that wasn’t the case last year.’’
What last year did was convince the Bengals they have a potent 1-2 backfield punch in Hill and Bernard, but the 6-1, 235-pound Hill is again expected to carry the load for a veteran Cincinnati team that is built to win now, and who had as status quo of an offseason as any club in the NFL.
“He’s a guy that’s built to last,’’ said Bengals left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth of Hill, his fellow ex-LSU standout. “Being as big and athletic as he is, I knew his talent would translate well to the NFL game. He’s a big, thick back who also knows how to play with agility as well. He can avoid hits when needed and play physically when needed. Those kind of backs are going to make it in this league, because it’s hard to both stop a guy who runs with power, and chase him athletically, too. When he got hot last year, he just started to feel it. He got in that groove and got confidence every time he touched the ball.’’
Hill admits biding his time in a backup role was challenging for him in the season’s first seven games -- he averaged just 28 yards rushing per game in that span -- but his 103.2-yard average from November on proved he was ready for the step up to NFL-level competition.
“In the beginning of the year I wasn’t getting the amount of touches I would have liked, and it was hard, but I didn’t want to voice my frustrations because it’s team first and the rest is what it is,’’ Hill said. “But when I got my opportunity, I wanted to make the most of it. I think playing in the SEC helped me out a lot and got me prepared, because the jump wasn’t as big physically as it was mentally. The biggest thing is handling the grind, the week in and week out competition level.’’
The NFL, of course, has seen reams of break-out rookie rushers fail to live up to those first-year standards in subsequent seasons, and if Hill’s stout 5.1 average rush drops this year, don’t be too surprised. Rookie backs of recent vintage like Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, DeMarco Murray, Ben Tate, Ryan Grant and LeGarrette Blount have all seen their 5.0-plus averages drop in year two, sometimes significantly. Hill will be running this season with a much larger target on his back, even if he does still feel a little bit off the radar in small-market Cincinnati.
“I haven’t really accomplished much. I’m just a second-year guy,’’ Hill said. “I like being the same guy I’ve always been. I kind of like being low key, and being the guy people are kind of doubting, or don’t expect much from. That kind of fires me up. I love it. Hopefully, if I do the things my coaches want me to do, and my teammates expect me to do, I can go out there and get it done. Hopefully then I can take the league by storm.’’
Kind of like how Beckham Jr. did over the latter two-thirds last season in New York, and interestingly enough, the week ahead will provide the perfect opportunity to see the two second-year playmakers side by side. The Giants visit Bengals camp for joint workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday, in advance of the New York-Cincinnati preseason opener on Friday. That tandem posted almost 2,700 yards of rookie-season production -- Beckham Jr. had 1,340 yards of receiving and rushing, with Hill a step behind at 1,339 -- and that’s going to keep the spotlight on them in 2015.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis lauds the job Hill has done at maintaining his focus as year two arrives, saying he has no concerns that early success will damage or delay Hill’s development in the league.
“As a player, he was what we expected last year,’’ Lewis said. “He can catch, he can run, and do all those things. But the biggest thing he did to exceed expectations was as a person and a teammate. The maturity, the humbleness, the work ethic were all there. He gets it. He’s hungry and his motivation level has not changed. And then put him with Gio, who’s had zero diva moments in his two years here, and we don’t have that problem with these two guys.’’
Lewis said Hill has worked to change his body this offseason, learning how to eat better, and take care of himself in preparation for the long season ahead. Hill’s model was Pittsburgh third-year running back Le’Veon Bell, who followed up his strong debut season of 2013 (1,259 total yards) with a monstrously better showing in 2014 (2,215), becoming one of the league’s premier backs and the gold standard for production in the AFC North.
“He watched what (Bell) did in Pittsburgh after his rookie year, and everybody’s been able to point him to that and say, ‘Look, this is what you have an opportunity to do. Now that you’re in the NFL, learn how to live, learn how to take care of yourself.’ That first year, players spend all their time training for the draft, and they don’t really get a chance to train for football much.’’
The Bengals, after four consecutive one-and-done playoff trips the past four seasons, are clearly in no-excuses, win-now mode, with a roster chock-full of potential free agents in 2016. Many have labeled this Lewis’s most talented team yet in his long Cincinnati tenure, and the urgency to finally make a deep playoff run has never been higher. Could it be that Hill’s second season as the main cog in the Bengals running game winds up being the key to how far Cincinnati can go, rather than the over-analyzed and oft-dissected game of fifth-year quarterback Andy Dalton? Can the Bengals ride their defense and running game to playoff success? Hill will be the focus if Cincinnati opts for that ground-first approach.
“I think everyone knows the urgency level, and obviously the playoff thing is always going to be the elephant in the room,’’ Hill said. “But we’ve just got to come out here and do what we do every day, and learn how to finish. We’ve got to just do the little things, because I think that’s what has been kind of biting us in the butt. The little things, and taking care of the football. If we can just fix that, this team can get the job done.’’
In the big-picture sense, the job remains very much undone for these Bengals. But if Hill can pick up where he left off in 2014, keeping fantasy owners happy in the process, there’s always the hope that the story is about to change in Cincinnati.
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