Gio Bernard Has RB1 Upside

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Every year we are littered with fantasy talk championing various players with “upside”, “massive ceilings” and “breakout potential”. As we sift through the chatter and the hype, it might be even more likely to find a player who has perennially held his own with a consistent body of work finally receive the slightest bump up and tap into that upside you’re looking for as a fantasy owner. Well look no further because Bengals RB Giovani Bernard has a chance to move beyond being a solid mid-round RB to a league-winner in 2016. For reasons stated below, I believe his upside is impeccable, forthcoming and downright amazing considering how he’s being valued currently as the 26th RB off the board.

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Although he’s perceived to be a PPR specialist, Bernard has been a “take-it-to-the-bank” RB2 every year even in standard leagues since coming into the NFL. Despite receiving only 154 carries on the season as bruiser Jeremy Hill has emerged, the lowest total in his 3-year career, Bernard was even more efficient in 2015 averaging 4.7 YPC. He’s caught 74.2% of his career targets and possesses a dependable floor as a pass-catcher in PPR leagues. The lone outlier in his end-season fantasy totals was the surprisingly low TD total he had last year. That can lead some to believe that Bernard is “capped” with Jeremy Hill as the primary red-zone option. While many would agree that they form one of the NFL’s most formidable RB duos, there are various opinions about who should be the top dog (well I guess a bengal is a cat) in Cincinnati.

In order to clear the air (and prove my point in this article), we’re going to take a look at Bernard’s 2015 workload, highlight some of what stood out on film, and project forward for what can easily lead to an RB1 season from someone being drafted much later.

To see where Giovani Bernard stands among Andy, Mike, and Jason, check out the 2016 Running Back Rankings.

Breaking Down Bernard’s 2015 Campaign

Here is a game-by-game breakdown of Bernard’s usage throughout the year. Through all the numbers listed below in these 16 games, what we want to pay attention to is workload percentage. In other words, who was used, how were they used and does this have any correlation with the outcome of the ballgame and game flow?

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Former OC Hue Jackson, who is known as somewhat as a RB-guru, utilized these two backs almost interchangeably throughout the year. Hill sputtered in a few high-scoring affairs and was essentially game-scripted out as Bernard saw most of the two-minute drill work and most of the overtime touches. In all four of the Bengals losses, Hill averaged just 37.6 total ypg while Bernard’s per game averages were fairly consistent, averaging 72.2 in wins and 83.8 in losses. Meaning Bernard was a reliable, if sometimes slightly restrained, fantasy back in 2015. His value shined through even more when Hill was to falter and suffer a subpar performance. Hill, in fact, fell below 50 total yards in half of his games played in 2015.

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I also looked through every single red zone rushing attempt for Hill and Bernard to get a better picture of the backfield roles. Hill outpaced Bernard 39-30 in terms of red zone opportunities; however, the number is a bit skewed when we realize Hill had 16 rushing attempts inside the five, including a whopping 5 times against the 49ers in Week 15. Bernard, on the other hand, was given the ball inside the 5-yard line only 3 times during the entire year.

Diving Into the Game Tape

After looking through almost every touch of his 2015 campaign, I decided it would be beneficial to highlight a five-game sample of Bernard’s season. These five in particular stood out when evaluating his tape to give you a well-rounded, yet short analysis of what I saw on film. Note: Highlighting all 16 games is way too much for this space.

Week 4 vs. KC

-Hill had 3 rushing TDs and a 2-pt conversion. One of those TDs was immediately after Bernard bounced a toss sweep outside, outrunning Chiefs All-Pro Tamba Hali and being ruled out at the 1/2 inch line.

-Bernard was inexplicably not targeted once all game despite seeing 13 through the first 3 weeks.

-Side note: this was the infamous 7 field goal Cairo Santos game if you remember…

Week 5 vs. SEA

-Hill was extremely ineffective against the Seahawks rushing 8 times for only 13 yards. Seattle led the league in run defense at 81.5 ypg so it’s understandable… Except Bernard had 80 on the ground and caught five balls for 21 yards.

-Bernard out snapped 66-19 Hill as the game turned into an high-octane 27-24 OT win for the Bengals. Hill was basically non-existent in the second-half. In OT, the Bengals gave the ball to Bernard five straight times before Mike Nugent’s game-winning FG.

-Even against 8-man fronts like the one shown below, Bernard was superb. He made Seahawks OLB K.J. Wright, whom Pro Football Focus graded him as the second best linebacker in the entire league, look silly on a couple runs. Bernard’s hips set Wright up for some major whiffs with a couple sharp cuts.

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Week 11 at ARI

-In another fast-paced barn-burner much like Week 5, Bernard out snapped Hill 52-24 as Hill’s lone contribution came on a 1-yard TD plunge at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

-The Cardinals routinely stacked the box in the first half as the Bengals used many 2-TE looks while daring Andy Dalton to throw. They were successful in the first half limiting Bernard on the ground but got killed in the screen game when moving to nickel. He took this particular second quarter play, while lined up on the right side of the formation, down the left sideline 41 yards to the two-yard line before Hill came in and vultured another TD.

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-Bernard ended up catching 8-of-10 targets for 128 yards. He was elusive, quick and continually beating Cardinals linebackers and safeties (especially Tony Jefferson) in space.

Week 13 vs CLE

-The Bengals were in control from the beginning as Bernard saw only 6 touches on the afternoon and was basically game-scripted out. Hill, on the other hand, was used as a battering ram collecting 98 yards and a TD on the ground while seeing 61% of the snaps.

-He saw only one screen play all game, something the Bengals excelled at in 2015.

Week 16 at DEN

-This was an overtime game on Monday night in which Bernard’s final stat line (8 carries for 14 yards, 4 rec for 29 yards and no TDs) did not tell the whole story. A.J. McCarron was starting at the point as Dalton had gone down with his hand injury and much of the offense was simplified.

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-Hill surprisingly out snapped Bernard 38-33 as the game script called for a more conservative approach. With a slim 14-10 lead midway through the 4th quarter, the Bengals tried to milk the clock, holding a 38:20-27:50 advantage in time of possession for the game.

-I counted 7 missed tackles against the NFL’s most fearsome defensive front. He particularly showcased the ability to get wide and beat Broncos LB Danny Trevathan on multiple occasions, although McCarron badly missed him on one target.

Overall, Bernard definitely had some moments where he jumped off the screen looking like an elite pass catcher with some burst in his runs, despite being limited in his carries. His elite agility and home run hitting ability remind me of CJ2K in his prime, although with not quite the same freakish 40-times. Despite being undersized at 5’8, he’s much more than a scatback and seemed even bullish at times while being comfortable in I-formation as well as the shotgun. The Bengals utilized him best when they gave him the room in the screen game to make plays in the open field. His vision and elusiveness is top-shelf in terms of creating space as I frequently saw defenders take bad angles. He’s a precise route runner even lining up in the slot. He is utilized best and most efficiently in spurts as his size demands that he split carries with Jeremy Hill. Nevertheless, he definitely has three-down ability if Hill were to go down.

Projecting 2016

So let’s project Bernard moving forward in 2016. Here are Bernard’s finishes in standard and PPR formats over the last year’s coupled with his pre-season ADP.

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Why is this guy perennially pegged outside of RB2 range even in PPR leagues? Bernard has never, in any scoring type of format, finished worse than RB21, which was his sophomore year of 2014 that he played in only 13 contests. You won’t be able to find a more rock-solid, consistent choice as his statistical seasons have basically mirrored each other through 3 years. But this article is slanted towards giving you the picture that Bernard has RB1 upside in 2016, so how can that happen?

The average for the number 12 overall back over the last 3 years has been 173.5 points in standard and 212.533 in PPR, although the last two years injuries have decimated the RB position as the 12th overall RB scored barely over 200 PPR points. This is the territory that Bernard has been slowly inching his way closer towards and what we are hoping is in the realm of possibilities. Using RotoViz’s Projection Machine App, we will use his career numbers to establish his baseline and then project forward what it would take for him to realize some of that RB1 potential.

Based on Bernard’s 3-year averages of 164 rushes for 701.67 yards, 49.33 catches on 65.33 targets for 445 yards and 5.67 combined TDs, here is a median projection of how his 2016 could play out.

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I’ve put below 3 simple scenarios from these projections in which Bernard can hit the RB1 threshold in standard and PPR formats. If Bernard hits just ONE of these three projections below, he can enter the conversation of RB1 territory. On the high end of projections, ALL of the scenarios above are more than likely as Bernard’s highest projected total had him finishing as RB7. NONE of the projections take into account if Jeremy Hill was injured. In fact, our projections actually assume Hill remains healthy and in the same role as last year with success as a short-yardage, goal-line back.

If Bernard sees a slight increase to 14% in his market share for targets, he is an RB1. Last year, Bernard saw 13.33% of the team’s targets and could have room for more in 2016 with losses to Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, as well as the prolonged injury risk of Tyler Eifert.

If Bernard’s TDs return to just south of his career norm with 5.5 projected combined TDs, he vaults easily into RB1 land. Although the hardest task to project in fantasy football is expected TDs, last year’s abnormal TD rate coupled with going out on the 1-yard line on 4 separate occasions should revert back in 2016.

If Bernard sees just 10 more touches to finish around 225 combined rushes and catches, he is an RB1. With his efficiency levels, we’re talking just another 60+ yards.

His ADP has risen an entire round over the last month, a sign that the industry is realizing his value. It’s time that you do the same and snag Bernard as one of the safest RBs around with a ton of potential upside.

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