The Cincinnati Bengals knew there was a chance they could lose both Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates in NFL free agency, with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo offering an ominous prediction at the NFL Combine that it would be “a dark day” if both safeties walked.
But the possibility of losing running back Samaje Perine felt unlikely, with the Bengals initially prepared to more than double his salary and then, per one team source, willing to go even higher after the Broncos came in with a similar offer. But Perine opted for a fresh start in Denver, where he’ll have a chance to be the lead back after four seasons of riding shotgun with Joe Mixon.
That move could have greater repercussions for the 2023 Bengals than anything else that happened this offseason.
The Cincinnati Bengals Will Look To Fill a Key RB Role During Training Camp
Not only was Perine just as productive as Mixon last season — if not more so when you look at their numbers on a per-snap basis — but Perine was one of the best pass-blocking running backs in the league.
Pro Football Focus ranked him eighth among qualifying backs, which is why Perine was on the field not just for the majority of third downs (148 snaps to Mixon’s 50) but also on all downs in obvious pass situations during the final two minutes of the first half (67 snaps to 27).
The process of replacing Perine as the third-down back is essentially starting from scratch, with rookie fifth-round pick Chase Brown competing with veterans Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans, who have almost no game experience in that role.
“You’ve got to be dialed in with the protection. That’s first and foremost,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said. “You’ve got to have that ability and awareness to physically handle it and mentally handle it. That’s a challenge. That’s a whole different piece of the game than first and second down. And so that’s Step 1. And then Step 2 is being reliable for the quarterback in checkdowns and opportunities when you’re free to release. You’ve got to win matchups in the pass game. There’s a lot that goes into that.”
The difficult part in evaluating the role, which at times can be the last line of defense between quarterback Joe Burrow and a sack, is that in practice, the defenders aren’t rushing with malice. And while the action will be live and furious in the preseason games, the recognition part of the equation may not be fully tested as opposing defensive coordinators keep their pressure packages basic.
Still, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said he expects to get a good feel for who is best suited to fill that aspect of the Perine role before the team travels to Cleveland for the Sept. 10 season opener.
“You can simulate that work,” he said. “The advantage we get is we get to go against (Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo) every day, and Lou has a full gamut of things that they’re trying to get repped in practice, which benefits us because they do have a pretty good arsenal of blitzes we’ll see over the course of our third-down work.
“Obviously, those guys are not coming to sack the quarterback, so it’s a little bit different,” Callahan continued. “But as far as recognition, execution, assignment football, you’re gonna see all that. And you should get a pretty good feel. It’s a role that’s undefined for who’s going to do it and what it’s gonna look like, and that’s going to be a big focus of training camp for us.”
The other part of the third-down role is making plays as a receiver. Perine recorded career highs in receptions (38) and receiving yards (287) last season. And not only were his four touchdown receptions a career high, but they were also double what he had recorded in his first five NFL seasons.
For a team that appears to have its starting 22 set, this should be the closest thing to a starting battle that we see in camp as the Bengals try to sort out their 53-man roster.
“I would say that that’s a big position battle going into training camp,” Taylor said. “Who’s gonna step up and take the ownership in the room to be that third-down guy?
“For Mixon, being the first- and second-down back, you don’t want him to take all the snaps either. You’re certainly open to him being a big part of that because it’s another way to get the ball in his hands at necessary times. But the challenge is then that he’s on the field at all times, and you want to be able to take care of running back.”
Given the inexperience of the three leading candidates and the importance of the role, it may not be one that is simply won or lost by the end of camp. It could evolve as the season progresses with multiple guys seeing increases and decreases in opportunities based on performance, starting with the pass-protection piece.
“It doesn’t have to be one person,” Taylor said. “It can be multiple different people that have all proven that they can handle it. But the No. 1 piece for us is always going to be understanding of the protections and being a part of those five offensive linemen in front of you when needed.”
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