Is Bengals' Bernard the next Ray Rice?

Any time a running back comes into the AFC North standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 200 pounds, the natural comparison will be to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

But, as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis see it, Giovani Bernard is ahead of Rice in terms of stature coming into the NFL.

"What everybody doesn't understand, when you look at Ray Rice when he was a young player, this guy is already a little taller, a little heavier," Lewis said at last weekend's rookie minicamp. "We're looking at comparisons of [Doug] Martin, and the back down in Jacksonville [Maurice Jones-Drew], and those kind of guys with that kind of stature. Everybody sees where they are now, but you also look at physically where they started out, and I think Gio’s got special ability that way."

In terms of projection, I can see Bernard following a path similar to Jones-Drew this year. In 2006, Jones-Drew was a second-round pick who backed up an established back in Fred Taylor. Jones-Drew totaled 212 touches as a rookie, running the ball 166 times and making 46 catches.

Like Jones-Drew, Bernard doesn't have to be the featured back right away because BenJarvus Green-Ellis will remain the starter. Green-Ellis is under contract for two more seasons, which will allow Bernard to develop and eventually become a three-down back.

Right now, Bernard is considered more of a specialty back. After the Bengals used the 37th overall pick on Bernard, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden described him as "a unique back with the skill set that doesn't have to be a 25-carry guy. He can be a 10-15-carry guy, catch eight balls, whatever it is, to help us out and make us more diverse."

The key is getting Bernard out in space as much as possible so he can use his elite athleticism. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals were working on screen passes with Bernard at rookie minicamp last week.

“He’s got great hands and makes people miss on the second level,” Gruden said. “Andy [Dalton] needs some of those short passes that turn into 25-yard gains. It’s a lot easier on a quarterback. Instead of grinding out every first down with the exception of throwing one deep to A.J. [Green] every now and then, we need some guys to get better running after the catch and breaking tackles after contact.”