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MNF Review: Cincy's impact rookies

9/17/2013


Cincinnati got important contributions from its first two picks in the 2013 draft in its win over AFC North rival Pittsburgh. Here’s a look at the impact they made plus an evaluation of two draft-eligible backs and two draft-eligible tight ends who can play similar roles in the NFL.

Bernard scores twice

Second-round pick RB Giovani Bernard (North Carolina) carried the ball eight times and caught one pass Monday night, but he made the most of those touches, as he scored both of Cincinnati’s touchdowns -- rushing for one and receiving one. Bernard isn’t like former Bengals running back Corey Dillon between the tackles, and Cincinnati leaned on BenJarvus Green-Ellis when it wanted to protect its lead with the power running game. At 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds, Bernard doesn’t have the kind of muscle mass and brute strength suited to the power game, yet he ran well between the tackles because he’s built low to the ground and he drives through contact. He also makes quick reads and accelerates as soon as he sees a seam. That acceleration translates to explosive finishing power, and he did a nice job of powering through contact on the touchdown run.

Bernard’s short-area burst whether he’s running in a straight line or moving laterally may be his greatest strength. He’s smooth when changing directions and when changing speeds whether he cuts back against the grain or bounces outside after pressing the line of scrimmage. He also showed his ability to reach his top-end speed quickly when he gets the ball in space on his touchdown catch.

Here are a couple of 2014 back prospects who compare favorably to Bernard, though there are no cookie cutters when it comes to NFL prospects.

Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey

Carey comes with baggage. Arizona suspended him for the season opener against Northern Arizona. His decision-making off the field is reason for concern. Like Bernard, he’s not a powerhouse who's going to consistently drag defenders for extra yards. At 5-10 and 197 pounds, he’s leaner than Bernard at this point, but Carey, too, is a hard-nosed competitor who runs hard and finishes better than you’d expect for a back with his frame.

Carey doesn’t appear to have the second gear to run away from NFL pursuit when he gets a seam, but he’s quicker than fast and his short-area burst is impressive on tape. His ability to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate once he locates a seam makes him a perfect fit for a zone-heavy scheme like the one the Redskins run. He’s also dangerous in space, where he can make defenders miss.

Finally, Bernard caught more passes and showed that he can be an impact return man at North Carolina, while Carey hasn’t played as a big a role as a receiver and made a minimal impact as a return man at Arizona. However, Carey has the potential to be a more productive receiver in the NFL than he has been in college. He can separate from man coverage, he catches the ball well and he can produce after the catch.

Tennessee RB Rajion Neal

Neal graded out as a Day 3 pick compared to Carey, who graded out as a Day 2 pick in the preseason. Here’s why. He entered the 2012 season with 229 career carries, so his résumé isn’t as accomplished as Bernard’s or Carey’s. And in 2013, he’s coming off an underwhelming performance against Oregon. While he’s the biggest back (5-11, 212 pounds) of the three and he, too, finishes his runs, he still doesn’t have great power. He tends to run with a narrow base, making it easier for defenders to knock him off balance and get him to the ground. It's better to be aggressive than indecisive, but he can show more patience at times.

Still, Neal doesn't just lower his head and run straight ahead. In fact, his lateral quickness and start-stop ability are impressive. He can make defenders miss in the hole and break defenders’ ankles in space. He’s also a sprinter for the Tennessee track team and shows good though not elite top-end speed on tape.

Neal isn’t a proven return man, either, but he has experience lining up at receiver and can make an immediate impact in the passing game. He’s an above-average route-runner for the position, he can adjust to passes thrown outside his frame and, like the other two, he can produce after the catch. There’s room for improvement when it comes to pass protection, but he has the toughness and enough size to progress in this area.

Eifert makes his mark

Cincinnati’s first round pick, TE Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame), only caught three passes Monday night, so the stats aren’t great. But he played a pivotal role catching a 61-yard pass that set the table for Bernard’s touchdown run, and he extended the Bengals’ drive at the end of the first half with a third-down catch.

His formational versatility stood out. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had him line up wide, in the slot, in the backfield and at the traditional tight end spot. Eifert’s ability to play in so many spots makes it tougher for the defense to track him and match up. The Steelers paid for losing track of him on his long catch. He also did a nice job of settling into a pocket and getting into position on a third-down play on Cincinnati’s opening drive. Unfortunately, QB Andy Dalton missed him.

It is clear that Eifert still has plenty of room to improve as a blocker. He got into position and covered his assignments at the second level for the most part. He had a hard time sealing the edge and creating push at the line of scrimmage. The good news is the effort is there, and improvement should come with added strength.

Here’s a look at two tight end prospects who project as second-round picks and could make a similar impact as Eifert:

North Carolina TE Eric Ebron

Ebron isn’t quite as consistent extending his arms away from his frame and snatching the ball out of the air as the sure-handed Eifert, but like Eifert, Ebron has the frame, body control and toughness to make tough catches in traffic. Both players have the speed to work the seam and make defenses pay for biting on play-action. Ebron can line up wide or in the slot. He has also reportedly bulked up to 245 pounds, and teams should feel more comfortable lining him up at the traditional tight end spot if he officially comes in at the weight at the combine and/or at his pro day workout. Even if he’s a little lighter than he’s listed, the true junior has enough room on his frame to add even more bulk up, which will help improve his ability to get off the line when linebackers try to jam him.

While he would do well to add weight and some lower-body strength, Ebron blew me away with the way he blocked on his 2012 tape. He is aggressive, he drives his legs on contact and he even flashes the ability to finish when he catches defenders off balance. There’s also a lot to like about his ability to reach and cover linebackers and defensive backs in space. He would be a valuable asset for a team such as Philadelphia that likes to use bigger receivers and tight ends as lead blockers when they throw quick screens to their receivers.

Oregon TE Colt Lyerla

Another Pac-12 prospect who comes with baggage, Lyerla missed nine practices for personal reasons in the summer of 2012, and his decision to express his disappointment with his head coach after the Ducks’ win over Tennessee doesn’t reflect well on him. Coach Mark Helfrich told the media that Lyerla missed the game because of “circumstances.” Lyerla said he was ill. Either way, teams will investigate Lyerla’s maturity and whether he will be a team distraction.

There’s no question Lyerla has the skill set to play at high level in the NFL, and it starts with his big-play ability. At 6-5 and 246 pounds, he has the speed to run under the deep ball and the frame to win 50-50 balls downfield. Unlike a lot of tight ends, he also has enough wiggle to make defenders miss, making him a threat after the catch. He can improve as a route-runner, but he has the quickness and agility to progress with improved footwork.

Inconsistent pad level and effort are two concerns when it comes to his blocking, but again, these are fixable flaws. He has the natural ability to get better. He even flashes above-average strength as an inline blocker and, like Ebron, has enough room on his frame to get bigger. Finally, he’s just as effective reaching his downfield assignments as the other two.