Size: Bernard is officially listed at 5’8” but weighs 202 pounds. I would personally like to see him add a little more weight to his frame, but packing 200+ pounds onto a 5’8” frame is no joke. He may not be a prototypical power back, but I personally really like shorter, compact running backs and the NFL has seen a number of those kinds of backs succeed lately. Bernard may not be a giant, but he is definitely big enough to be a successful NFL running back.
Speed: If you’ve been watching Bernard since he burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman last year you know that his speed isn’t what makes him great. He ran an official 4.53 at the combine and that is about what I expected from him. I knew he wasn’t a sub 4.45 guy, but I also didn’t expect him to be any slower than 4.55 or so. He isn’t going to rip off a lot of 50+ yard runs at the next level thanks to his straight line speed. He has enough speed to be an effective back, but it’s not where he excels.
Quickness: This is one of Bernard’s best attributes. He is extremely quick and he demonstrates this via his acceleration, his change of direction speed and when he eludes defenders in the open field. He may not run a sub 4.4, but he accelerates quickly up to his top speed and that is incredibly important at the running back position. He can stop and start on a dime, and regularly uses this quickness and change of direction ability to gain additional yardage when he gets in the open field or when he has a blocker in front of him.
Running Inside: Bernard is at his best when he is running zone plays where he can patiently wait for a hole to open up on the front side or find a cutback lane on the backside, hit the gas and get through it. If you ever talk to a running back or a running back coach you will hear the phrase “slow to the hole, fast through the hole” and Bernard epitomizes that. He runs patiently which makes him a great fit for a zone heavy scheme that relies on patience and good vision from the back. He frequently turns potentially negative plays into no gain or positive plays. By this I mean he can create for himself thanks to his quickness and elusiveness, meaning that even if the play is disrupted he has the skill set to salvage the run and get back to the line of scrimmage or beyond it if he isn’t immediately swallowed up once he gets the hand-off. This has been displayed a number of times when he runs between the tackles, and that has a lot to do with his impressive elusiveness but also with his terrific balance. Because of his size he tends to naturally be running with good pad level, but because of his thick lower body and good pad level he isn’t easy to take down with arm tackles. He may not be a pure power back, but he can run between the tackles very effectively and gain tough yards after contact thanks to his lower body strength.
Running Outside: Running outside isn’t necessarily the strength of Bernard’s game, but it isn’t a weakness either. I don’t think he has the straight line speed to consistently get the edge at the next level, but I don’t think he’s going to be getting caught from behind by defensive linemen either. He does a good job of utilizing his quickness and shiftiness to help make up for it, but running him outside the tackles and attempting to let him outrun the defense to the corner isn’t playing to Bernard’s strengths. He showed that he can run outside at North Carolina, but having a very talented (not to mention athletic) offensive line that could get out in front of him certainly played a role in his success on outside runs. He does have the vision and burst to bounce runs outside if he sees the defense over-pursue though.
Receiving: This is another strength of Bernard’s game. He may not be elite in this area, but he is still very good. He isn’t a terrific route runner at this juncture, but he has more than good enough hands to make an immediate impact in this aspect of the game as a rookie next season. He looks the ball into his hands, can make catches away from his body, and rarely drops catchable passes. He is lethal on screens and when you get him into the open field as a receiver he can be very dangerous. He is one of the more NFL ready running backs in this class when it comes to contributing to the passing game.
Blocking: Bernard may only be a redshirt sophomore, but he has shown significant improvement as a pass blocker since I first watched him as a redshirt freshman. He isn’t great in this area, but he is definitely above average (if not good). He has shown a willingness to meet his man in the hole instead of waiting for the defender to engage him, he has demonstrated the ability to shock and anchor with a solid base, and he has shown he can cut the defender when necessary. He should certainly improve in this area with NFL coaching, but he has demonstrated more than enough ability to project him as a reliable pass protector within the next couple of years.
Vision: This is part of what separates Bernard from other running backs in this class: his vision. As I mentioned earlier he runs patiently, allowing his blocks to set up, and he reads his blocks well and finds running lanes effectively. He does a fantastic job of using his blockers, especially in the open field, and consistently uses them to keep defenders out of the play as long as possible to gain additional yardage. He may not be the fastest back in the draft, but he uses his blocks as well as any of the other backs in this class in my opinion.
Ball Security: Bernard carries the ball high and tight to his body just like you are supposed to when you are carrying the ball. I’m not sure that I have ever watched him fumble after getting a carry or after making a reception, but at the very worst he does it very infrequently. He has had some issues muffing punts at times, but that is an entirely different skill than protecting the ball on a carry to carry basis.
Overall: Bernard is one of my favorite backs in this class and I think he has a chance to thrive in the NFL, particularly if he goes to a pass-happy zone team. Bernard may not be a straight-line burner, but he has more than enough quickness, vision, elusiveness, receiving ability and pass blocking upside to warrant spending a top 40 pick on him in my opinion. Will he be a 1st round pick? I’d be a little surprised, but it’s not impossible. This is an extremely deep and talented running back class, so unless running back is a glaring need for your team I wouldn’t expect them to invest in one in the first two rounds. That might mean a lucky team gets Bernard later than they ordinarily would, but regardless of when he gets selected I expect Bernard to make a positive impact early and often at the next level. However, what you see on the field from Bernard is essentially what you are going to get. There isn’t an incredible amount of upside with him because he is already a pretty polished back despite starting for just two seasons at North Carolina. That will turn some teams off, but a wise team will take advantage of that.
Projection: Top 64. I thought he might have a shot at cracking the 1st round, but this is such a deep and talented class that I think he will likely be a mid 2nd round pick when all is said and done.