It’s not every day that an NFL running back reverses fields and turns the corner for a touchdown like Cincinnati Bengals RB Giovani Bernard was able to do on a 35-yard touchdown run Thursday against the Miami Dolphins. The 5-foot-8, 202-pound rookie, who was the first running back drafted in the 2013 draft with the 37th overall pick in the second round, has brought strong production all season. In fact, he leads all rookie running backs in total yards (628), receiving yards (267), total touchdowns (six) and rushing touchdowns (four), and he is second behind Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy in rushing yards (361).
After I watched three coaches' copy tapes of Bernard, it’s not hard to see why he’s been so effective early on for the Bengals. Bernard has displayed above-average feet and lateral agility to make defenders miss in a confined area, and he flashes noticeable acceleration out of cuts. Although he lacks ideal power in his lower half, Bernard has excellent balance, which has allowed him to stay on his feet after contact. Bernard also is showing strong instincts and vision. He is setting up and using his blocks and has a strong feel for the cutback lanes.
Bernard displayed some of these strengths coming out of North Carolina. However, his biggest asset entering the 2013 draft was his versatility in the passing game, which has translated well to start his career. Bernard is a polished route-runner who shows above-average quickness out of cuts, shows natural hands and makes a quick transition up the field after the catch. Despite his lack of ideal size, Bernard has shown adequate awareness and technique with his sets in pass protection.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has done a nice job of creating mismatches and putting Bernard in strong positions to maximize his receiving skills, which has been a big reason Bernard already has 30 receptions. Gruden has shown timely play calling as well, getting Bernard involved in the screen game and setting him up with favorable one-on-one matchups with linebackers.
Bernard still has room for improvement. He will be too quick to look to bounce runs outside on occasion, and he can learn to be more disciplined to settle for 3- or 4-yard gains. Although he has just one fumble in 111 total touches, he needs to keep the ball tight to his body better when making cuts in traffic.
The biggest concern moving forward for Bernard is durability. While he had 104 total yards and two rushing touchdowns against Miami, he was unable to finish the game and did not play in overtime because of bruised ribs. Injuries were an issue during his career at North Carolina. He suffered a torn ACL that forced him to redshirt during his first year in the program in 2010, and he missed two games last year because of a knee injury suffered in the opener against Elon. Durability issues played a big role in why we gave Bernard a mid-third-round grade.
Overall, though, it’s hard to argue with the Bengals' taking Bernard as the first running back off the board in April’s draft. They filled a need for a change-of-pace runner to team up with workhorse RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and have provided QB Andy Dalton with another weapon in the passing game at the same time. If Bernard can stay healthy, he looks to have the skill set to potentially develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber running back.