His 2015 season a study in contradictions, Giovani Bernard’s volume of work should make fantasy feel comfortable picking up the Bengals running back come draft day.
THE PLAYER: Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
The SI rank—Beller: No. 22 RB, No. 56 overall | Fitz: No. 20 RB, No. 45 overall
The consensus rank—No. 27 RB, No. 72 overall
Bernard had the best season of his career in 2015, running for a career-high 730 yards while getting 154 carries, the fewest of his first three seasons in the league. His 4.7 yards per carry set a new career high and ranked ninth in the NFL, just behind Todd Gurley. That same YPC mark was good for third among backs who had as many carries as Bernard did, trailing Gurley and Doug Martin. He caught 49 passes for 472 yards, topping 1,200 total yards for the second time as a pro and, though he had to share the backfield with Jeremy Hill, was the 22nd-ranked back in standard-scoring leagues.
Bernard had the worst season of his career in 2015, despite the Bengals enjoying one of their finest team-wide offensive campaigns in years. The team finished seventh in the league in points, but Bernard scored just two touchdowns, smashing his previous career low of seven. After finishing 16th and 18th, respectively, during the first two years of his career among running backs in standard-scoring leagues, Bernard was the 22nd-ranked back in total points, and 41st in points per game. He stayed healthy for 16 games, and while that’s a positive, he volumed his way to a technical RB2 finish in 12-team leagues.
It’s fun, and sometimes confounding, how the exact same stats can paint completely different pictures. That’s true for every player, but it’s particularly instructive for someone like Bernard. To prove the point, let’s bring back some of the above numbers and run them through Pro Football Reference’s play index.
Bernard had 154 carries, 49 receptions, 66 targets, 9.6 yards per reception and a 74.2% catch rate last season. We can take some off the top of all four of those stats to pull in all like single-season performances. There have been 53 running back seasons since 1992 with at least 140 carries, 40 catches, 60 targets, 9.0 yards per catch and a 70% catch rate. Only four other backs who hit all those benchmarks—2013 Joique Bell, 2004 Edgerrin James, 2003 Priest Holmes, and 2003 Kevin Faulk—also had zero receiving touchdowns. Including the four goose eggs, those backs averaged 2.62 receiving touchdowns per season.
We can go further still. The running back who crossed those thresholds but had no more than 200 carries, to keep them in range of Bernard’s carries and eliminate, say Eddie George’s 403-carry season in 200, averaged 3.54 rushing touchdowns per year. History suggests the average running back who handled the ball as frequently as Bernard did last year, with the same level of efficiency, would have scored six touchdowns (6.16, on average). Bernard scored two. And while he set new career highs in rushing yards and yards per carry, those numbers weren’t significantly better than his rookie year, when he hit paydirt eight times.
Bernard has never been a traditional running back, but then he’s also not a running-back-in-name-only in the style of Danny Woodhead. He’s the middle-class version of Matt Forte, getting a lot out of both facets of his game, but not in the ritzy neighborhood where the new Jet can afford a house (in this scenario, just for the record, Le’Veon Bell is to Forte as Forte is to Bernard).
That, coupled with Hill’s presence, makes Bernard one of the trickier mid-round running backs to value in 2016. We know Hill isn’t going anywhere, and could very well lead the team in carries again. Former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, whose imprint on the offense cannot be overstated, is in the other corner of the state, trying to turn around the meandering Browns. In his place is Ken Zampese, who’s certainly a familiar face in the building. He spent the last five years as team team’s quarterbacks coach, helping Andy Dalton to the best season of his career in 2015. At the same time, he’s an unknown commodity as a scheme designer and play caller. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but we want to know as much as possible about a player before drafting him, and Zampese’s tendencies will be an unknown, even after watching him call four preseason games.
Fantasy owners should feel comfortable taking on that risk with everything else we know about Bernard on the other side of the scale. He was one of only three backs with at least 150 carries and 60 targets last season, the other two being Devonta Freeman and Mark Ingram. If he had one more target in 2014—a season in which he missed three games due to injury—he’d be working on a three-year streak of clearing both of those numbers. In his rookie season, he was one of six backs with at least 170 carries and 70 targets. Bernard is one of the few true dual-threat backs in the league, and the Bengals have shown an extreme willingness to use him to the fullest of his abilities during the first three seasons of his career.
Bernard’s going to get at least 230 combined carries and targets this season, and that could increase if Tyler Eifert misses more time than expected because of an ankle injury. Most likely, he’ll cruise past 250 and, assuming he stays in line with his career catch rate, he’ll have the ball in his hands 220 times this season. He’s the second most explosive weapon in the Cincinnati offense behind A.J. Green, and the only capable three-down back on the roster. He’s an RB2 with a top-15 ceiling at an RB3’s price.