When UNC’s Giovani Bernard measured in at around 5’ 8 and 202lbs at the Combine, it was hard not to think immediately of Ray Rice, especially when you consider what you see on film. Both are compact ‘do-it-all’ backs who are heavily utilized in the pass-game and showcase a good mixture of short-area quickness as well as strength and explosion. The comparisons and reminders are there but can Bernard emulate the same success as Rice has had so far in his short NFL career?
What jumps off the screen when reviewing Bernard is how quick his feet are, he’s able to make cuts effortlessly and dance through traffic with relative ease, although whilst quick, Bernard does lack that extra gear to run away from defenders when he hits the open field and relies more on his initial burst and ability to hit his top speed quickly to separate from strafing linebackers and pick up big gains. Bernard frequently runs through arm tackles but that’s unfortunately all he’s limited to, he lacks power and rarely gets much push or extra yards once his momentum is halted. It will be intriguing to see if Bernard follows the likes of Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew and elects to add bulk to help with this area of his game.
Bernard is a willing and effective pass-blocker and won’t be a liability on third downs because of this. Although not afraid to initiate contact or take on a blitzing linebacker, Bernard is quick to attack low and this sometimes allows defenders to anticipate and hurdle or avoid it. Bernard shows good recognition skills and in the 3 games I watched of him there wasn’t a single time he made a mental error or allowed a free path to his QB.
Bernard is a true weapon in the passing game with a combined 92 catches over the last two years for a total of 852 yards. He was routinely used in this area at UNC and it serves as a major plus when evaluating his potential worth to an offense. Bernard runs good routes and is able to find space and help his QB out when the play breaks down. Bernard did make some impressive grabs during his college career and looks a natural receiver who can make catches away from his body. Despite the durability concerns, there’s no question Bernard has the skillset to be a three-down back who is just as adept at creating mismatches out in space as he is running between the tackles.
Bernard’s most elite attribute as a prospect is his vision. He shows the ability to slow plays down behind the line-of-scrimmage and wait for what the defense gives him. Much like Arian Foster, Bernard never seems to miss a cutback lane or fail to take advantage of an open hole and would be an ideal fit in a zone-blocking scheme. Bernard won’t need a great O-line in order to succeed in the NFL because of this talent and has the instincts and peripheral vision to not only limit negative plays behind the line but also to minimize the target defenders have to aim at.
Bernard is a two-year starter after sustaining a torn ACL in his freshman year and has missed time since which has led to durability concerns, despite the fact Bernard has proven in the past that he can play and still perform when hurt or not fully healthy. Bernard possesses some value as a punt returner with 2 TDs although it’s questionable whether he can contribute in this area at NFL level.
The biggest question evaluators will have is whether Bernard can be a feature back or is more suited to a running-back-by-committee scenario. The answer to this question will likely be reflected in his draft position, if teams think he can be the former then Bernard could go as high as early in the 2nd round with teams like the Jets and Bengals having a huge need for the position.