First Down: Overlooked Bernard about to be crowned king of Queen City

Place your ear on the ground outside any NFL training camp this time each year and you’ll surely hear coaches issue endless praise. Everyone packed on pounds, shed weight, fixed mechanical issues, explored the dark, mysterious world of veganism or, in the case of Michael Vick, tacked on a ‘whopping’ four pounds of muscle in what will probably be a failed attempt to prevent rib breakage.

Most preseason bites are completely ridiculous, misguided ‘facts’ designed to inflate player egos and lead fantasy owners astray. However, some offer invaluable insight, detailing an underappreciated commodity’s upward movement.

Take, for instance, what trickled off the wire Thursday out of Cincy.

Over the past several weeks, many within the ‘expert’ community have talked up fellow rookies Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball and Eddie Lacy. Though Giovani Bernard was the first running back selected in last April’s draft (Round 2, No. 37 overall), his undetermined role on a team that hasn’t produced a top-10 fantasy RB since Rudi Johnson (2006) has allowed him to slip well into the middle rounds of average drafts (64.3 ADP, RB30). After all, A.J. Green and slinging ginger Andy Dalton are the faces of the franchise. And the offensive line, which ranked No. 27 last season in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus, isn’t exactly a fortress up front.

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However, perceptions may soon change.

Watch game-tape of Bernard and the youngster leaps off the screen. Mama mia, he looks good. He’s a blend of David Wilson and Reggie Bush – explosive around the edge, nasty in space, highly elusive and a threat on special teams. The ex-Tar Heel isn’t the most adept pass blocker and he tore his ACL in 2010, but, on the surface, he possesses the tools of a future mancrush. Hue Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month, the kid has the "skill set of an every-down player." Compared to basset hound BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard is a cheetah, though it’s unlikely he could outsprint Chris Johnson.

Echoing Jackson’s sentiment, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden remarked Thursday Bernard and the LawFirm are on a collision course for a full-blown 50-50 timeshare. From the Enquirer:

In terms of the running game, Gruden hinted that it could end up being a 50-50 split. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had nearly three quarters of the carries last season, but the plan when they signed him last year was to use more of a backfield by committee.

The other thing that makes Bernard dangerous is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The Bengals were the only team in the league last season not to have a running back with a reception over 20 yards.

With Green, an improved Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert to throw to and a decent offensive line anchored by recently re-signed tackle Andre Smith to protect him, Dalton could have a field day vertically, paving the way for Bernard and BenJarvus to gain appreciable yards on the ground. At this point, it seems likely the incumbent, who tallied the 10th-most attempts inside the 20 last year (43), will pound the red-zone with Bernard working the middle of the field. But those roles aren't completely set in stone.

For the rook, end-zone dives may be a rare occurrence, but keeping in mind Cincy backs totaled 401 touches last year, he should net roughly 12-15 grips per game, many of those coming via the pass game. And that’s a conservative estimate. It would be no surprise come midseason the Spiller-like Bernard overtakes BenJarvus completely. The talent gap is simply too wide.

Bell should be the first rookie back drafted, but for the Noise’s buck, Neo Gio, unlike Montee Ball, doesn’t lag far behind. In PPR formats, a top-20 campaign is fathomable.

Once you enter the value rounds, cage the cat.

Fearless Forecast: 174 attempts, 765 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 336 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

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