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One of the most debated players this off-season has been Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon. Selected in the second round of the 2017 draft, he was widely considered one of, if not the best, running backs in the draft last season. Fantasy owners bought into the running back as well, helping boost his ADP to 3.9 in rookie drafts.

Unfortunately, owners were disappointed in his performance during year one. Have they already given up hope in Mixon though?

There are only two schools of thought when it comes to Mixon. Either you believe he has the talent to become one of the best running backs in the league, or you think he is overrated and at best, a two-down back with little upside. Last season, Mixon was my RB1 in the draft, and I am still standing by that. So, my job for the next few minutes is to convince you that Mixon should be on your team when Week 1 kicks off this season.

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Offensive Line Upgrades

I am going to start here because this was the single biggest thing the Bengals needed to work on this off-season, and they did just that. Before talking about the upgrades though, it’s important to point out why the offensive line was so bad last season. It goes deeper than having only 1,366 rushing yards in 2017, the second-lowest total in the league.

The offensive line lost two key members prior to the 2017 season with the departure of Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth. It showed over the course of the season as well because the team was not prepared to move forward without them. The Bengals ended up using 21 different combinations on the offensive line last season, tied for the fifth most in the league. They also allowed 158 pressures last season as well.

You can imagine that switching things up that much would only cause issues. The Bengals started 10 different lineman last season and each one gave up at least one sack. In fact, the line was pretty good about allowing defenders into the backfield on a constant basis. The Bengals averaged 0.93 yards before contact on outside zone runs last season. Considering one of Mixons strengths is his ability to turn the corner and move the ball upfield quickly, getting stuck in the backfield on those plays severally limits his ability to make big plays. In his final season at Oklahoma, Mixon was the Big 12 leader in percentage of carries that went 15-plus yards at 11.9 percent.

The offensive line didn’t fare much better across the board on other runs either in terms of yards before contact.

Avg Left Center Right
1.31 1.19 1.28 1.41

The Bengals average of 1.31 yards before contact was better than only nine other teams in the NFL and .16 yards worse than the leagues average. The good news though, reinforcements are on the way for the offensive line. The Bengals traded for Cordy Glenn to anchor left tackle and drafted Billy Price who should be starting at center Week 1. Glenn has the ability to be a top left tackle in the league, but has had issues staying healthy recently. This could be a huge steal for the Bengals if he plays all 16 games in 2017, but better yet, would help improve the side where the Bengals only had 1.19 yards before contact. Having a rookie center is not the ideal situation, but Price was a great pick for the Bengals. If these two can help turn the line around, Mixon and the rest of the offense will be much better in 2018.

 

Stalled Drives

Before we jump to Mixon’s performance, there is one other thing to note about the Bengals offense in 2017. The Bengals had one of the worse offenses in 2017 for drive efficiency. The improved offensive line and an improved performance from Mixon will help these numbers, but it is part of the reason why Mixon was not able to put together high volume last year.

The Bengals offense averaged 2:22 per drive last season, second to last in the league. They also finished last in plays per drive (5.11) and yards (24.2). The Bengals will need to extend drives in 2018 to offer Mixon more opportunity. Andy Dalton was sacked 39 times last season, tied for sixth most in the league and lost 255 yards on sacks. That is one way to kill a drive. An improved offensive line will offer more efficiency and extended drives. Extended drives will equal more opportunities for Mixon as well. It all goes back to cleaning up the line.

 

The Tale of Two Seasons

Some owners don’t see the improvement Mixon made from the first half to the second half of the season. Even though the offensive line was bad all season, Mixon was able to improve on his numbers. During Weeks 1 through 8, Mixon only had 88 rushes for 284 yards, good for 3.22 yards per carry. The whole Bengals backfield was in a time share the first few weeks of the season. Even though Jeremy Hill wasn’t good last season, he still spent the first seven weeks taking carries from Mixon.

From Weeks 9 through 16, Hill didn’t even see the field and Mixon had 80 rushes for 342 yards for 4.27 yards per carry. Keep in mind that during this time frame, Mixon also missed two games and part of another. If he had been healthy the full second half of the season, he could have run for over 800 yards and his full season yards per carry of 3.5 would have been higher.

The biggest reason Mixon should have a larger impact in 2018 was his 88.2 catch percentage, second-highest of any player in the league last season. Not just running backs, but all players at all positions. Bernard only had 12 receptions through the first eight weeks of the season last year. If the Bengals decide to give Mixon more of a role in the passing game, and Bernard sees the same workload he did in the first half last year, the work will be there for increased numbers.

 

What to Expect

If you read Mixon’s NFL draft profile, there is one huge comparison we should note. This isn’t just coming from fantasy owners who drool over Mixon’s tape, but NFL scouts saw a real comparison to Le’Veon Bell. For most owners who took a chance on Bell when he was a rookie in 2013, you may not have expected more than Mixon, but you would have gotten comparable numbers anyway.

During his rookie season, Bell rushed for 860 yards and averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Mixon only lacked the workload in his rookie season compared to Bell or their seasons would have matched up more. Mixon also had a much higher catch percentage than Bell but only 15 less catches. Mixon also averaged 9.6 yards per reception compared to Bell’s 8.9 yards per reception.

Do I expect Mixon to reach the level of production that Bell has shown the last few years? No, not right away. That would be unfair to expect that out of Mixon considering he plays on a less dynamic offense with a lesser quarterback. However, if Mixon is truly headed in the right direction, and is the player we saw in the second half of 2018, then we should expect a high-end RB2 in 2018 at least. Between the woes of the offensive line and Hill seeing work to start 2017, those were the reasons Mixon did not reach expectations. Both of those factors have been fixed for 2018 though, so it’s time to buy into Mixon this time. If you already own him, hold on. If you don’t own him, hurry up before the season gets here.

 

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