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Bengals Gab grades the running backs

As the offseason activity dies down and we roll towards the promise of football again under the approaching summer heat, let us look to the future. Bengals Gab will be looking at each of the individual position groups on the team over the next several days, providing readers with a grade on each and a primer as mini-camps, training camp, and the preseason approaches.

Next up, the workhorses, the Runningbacks.  

The running back position was solidified in 2009, becoming a strength on the team, and the lone lifeline the offense had as the season wore on.

Cedric Benson rewarded the team’s faith in him, proving to the NFL that his legal issues were behind him.  He finally fulfilled the promise that made him the 4th overall pick in the 2005 draft.  His 301 carries, 1,251 yards and 6 touchdowns led the team.  The 4.2 yards per carry he averaged was the best the team had seen from a primary back in years. In the playoff loss to the Jets, Benson brought his “A” game, with 169 yards on 21 carriers, including a 47 yard touchdown run that breathed life into the sputtering team.

Despite CBS Sportsline’s Pete Prisco’s assertion that Benson is overrated, he is not.  Many tend to consider him strictly a power back, which is a mistake. His rare combination of size and speed allows him to both bully between the tackles and outrun defensive backs.  Additionally, he is a capable receiver out of the backfield, although this was not exploited as much as it should have been.  Benson did get nicked up over the course of the season, so his durability, especially with his heavy workload, should be a concern heading in 2010.

The primary back-up was Bernard Scott.  The rookie from Abilene Christian had an outstanding first season, running for 321 yards on 74 carries (4.3) average.  Scott also had 67 yards on 5 receptions.  His best value may have been as kick-off return man, where he averaged 31 yards a return and brought one back to the house at Pittsburgh.  Scott started two games due to Benson’s injuries, recording a 100+ yard effort against Oakland.  Like Benson, Scott did get injured during the course of the year, so the team will be wary of that as training camp approaches.

Then there’s Brian Leonard.  One of the smartest trades in Bengals history, Leonard was absolutely indispensible on 3rd downs.  His knack for getting first downs and leaping defenders made him an instant favorite amongst the fan base.  He’s also a reliable option out of the backfield for Carson Palmer, and is a capable blocker. Look for Leonard to continue in this role in 2010.

The team signed veteran Larry Johnson in November fresh from his ugly departure from the Chiefs.  Johnson’s opportunities were limited, but he shined when given the rock, recording a 107 yard game versus Cleveland in week nine.  Like Benson and Scott, Johnson’s 4.4 yard per rush average was excellent.  Now a Redskin, the team will need to look for other options as a third option as “bell cow” back.

As for the fullbacks, the team went with veteran Jeremi Johnson for the majority of the year. Johnson was solid but unspectacular and the team has made no effort to re-sign him during the offseason.

Although there wasn’t a lot of activity on this front during free agency, the team didn’t sit on their hands.  They brought in young veterans in Cedric Peerman and Walter Mendenhall, and signed CFA’s Cordera Eason (Mississippi) and Mikell Simpson (Virginia).  They brought back fullback Fui Vakapuna, who appears to be the starter at this point, and signed CFA Joe Tronzo (Louisville).

Overall Position Group Grade:  B

Cedric Benson is legit and will give defenses fits again this year as the team stays with a grind-it-out, wear-you-down offense.  Scott will continue to provide change-of-pace productivity and will give the offense solid field position on kick-offs.  Brian Leonard looks to be a lock again as the 3rd-down option.

I remain unconvinced that Vakapuna is starting quality, but a year under his belt with running backs coach Jim Anderson may have been what was needed.  It is important to note that the team may use the fullback position less in 2010, as they go to more 2 TE sets and 3 receiver sets thanks to improvements in those areas and a recommitment to the passing game.

They will need to look for another workhorse as the season approaches.  Mendenhall, Simpson, and Peerman will battle it out for a spot, but the team should explore a veteran option should one become available.  They may choose to wait until after teams pare down rosters during training camp.

Assuming injuries are minimized, the Bengals should get satisfactory performance from the running game in 2010.  Look for Benson to top 1300 yards and get 5 to 8 touchdowns as the first option.

The team should explore using Benson more as a receiver, and spell him using Leonard and Scott more than in 2009.

Stay tuned to Bengals Gab for more positional analysis and opinions, and as always, feel free to leave us a comment!

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