Earlier this week, former Bengals running-back Giovani Bernard decided to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after being released by Cincinnati, the team that he’s been with since he was drafted in 2013.
The former second-round pick played admirably throughout his tenure in orange and black, however it’s clear that Joe Mixon is going to be leading that backfield in a bell-cow role for the foreseeable future.
After a promising start to his career with three-straight seasons of 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Bernard hasn’t been able to reach that pinnacle since, partially because he was never a consistent starter and has always been more of that third-down option.
Despite entering his ninth year, Bernard does still show flashes of what he did through his first three seasons. Not only is he still one of the most polished receiving backs in the league today, he also brings a hard-nosed approach to pass protection.
For these two reasons alone, Bernard should be able to find some playing time in a Buccaneers backfield that had three backs struggle mightily in these areas. However, he is also still quite the runner out of the backfield.
While he isn’t a homerun hitter, he does show a lot of good vision, elusiveness, and some moves that leave some defenders tackling air. While he won’t be a first, or even second option, he does still have a lot to offer this team. But don’t take my word for it, let’s let the film do the talking:
Last season, Bernard played a bit more of an involved role due to a lingering injury from the aforementioned Mixon. In this increased role, he was able to pick up 47 catches on 59 targets for a total of 355 yards just through the air.
He is a solid route runner and very good receiver, but it’s what he does after the catch at times that makes him special:
Bernard lines up in the backfield and runs a Texas route that frees him up over the middle after he fakes out his assignment. From there, he makes the catch on a low throw and proceeds to juke three tacklers out of their cleats en route to a 15 yard touchdown.
We saw many times throughout the season where someone like Ronald Jones II would catch a pass on his knees because he couldn’t catch the ball at it’s low point like Bernard does here.
Not only that, but neither Jones II nor Fournette had the elusiveness to make three defenders look silly after making a difficult catch like that.
In addition to this proficiency in making moves after the catch, he also seems to be much better than the 2020 Bucs backfield at stepping into pass protection, as told to us by Greg Auman of The Athletic:
Easy to see Giovani Bernard is a proven pass-catching back, but he’s an upgrade for Bucs in pass protection, too. 2020 @PFF ranks among all RBs in pass-blocking grades: Bernard 7th, Ronald Jones 44th, Leonard Fournette 65th. More here: https://t.co/WdViPy7p07— Greg Auman (@gregauman) April 13, 2021
To help back up PFF’s rankings from Auman’s tweet, here’s Bernard picking up a blitzing corner that’s coming into the pocket like a freight train:
They always say that low man wins, and that remains true here. Even though Bernard is practically still when Browns’ cornerback Greedy Williams (26) comes screaming in, he sets down low and initiates contact so that he doesn’t get sent straight back into Joe Burrow’s lap.
While he does lose a little bit of ground, Burrow is able to step up, evade the rush, and get off a pass that he probably wouldn’t have if Bernard didn’t play this like he did.
Even though Bernard has never been the guy to get the lion’s share of carries, he was still able to accumulate at least 400 yards in six of his eight seasons as a Bengal. On top of this, his career average is a pretty solid four yards per carry.
As a smaller back at 5’9” and 205 lbs, he was never going to be the primary ball-carrier, but he will offer a good change of pace to the Bucs backfield. His ability to follow blocks and make sharp cuts in limited space helps him to make up for his lack of size, which is why it’d still be worth it to give him a few carries a game.
The Bengals dial up a draw here against the Giants and when Bernard gets to the second level, he sees Blake Martinez (54) flash outside, which prompts him to make a sharp cut in, and then right back out to pick up an additional six or seven yards.
The quickness of his moves here is something to be excited about. Not only does he take Martinez out of the play by forcing him to cut in and get blocked, he also makes Dalvin Tomlinson (94) cut in ways that we haven’t seen since his three-cone drill at the Combine.
It’s pretty clear that Bernard still has some juice left in the tank. After a season of running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, he might even have more to show us now that he’s behind one of the best.
While he isn’t the splashiest free-agency signing, this move might be bigger than it looks on the surface. We all know Brady wanted a back that could be consistent on passing downs in both receiving and pass protection.
Now he has that back and it seems like the Super Bowl champs just got a little bit better. Those 31 other teams better look out, Tom’s coming for eight and he’s got Bernard to make it just that much easier for him.