Joe Mixon: 2021 Offseason Dynasty Buy or Sell?
Last fall, the Bengals signed Joe Mixon to a $48 million contract extension scheduled to keep him in Cincinnati through 2024. Amidst a number of new deals for high-profile running backs like Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook last September, Mixon’s extension was somewhat lost in the shuffle.
Moreover, his Week 6 injury ended up costing him the rest of the season, which further detracted from his dynasty value. Per Dynasty League Football’s January ADP, Mixon has slid to the dynasty RB19 on average in 1QB startup drafts, which is an all-time low since he entered the NFL. So is that ADP still too high for Mixon coming off injury, or is he a potential value in dynasty now after a down year in 2020?
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Let’s begin by examining the injury that knocked Mixon out of action for the majority of 2020, his foot injury. There hasn’t been any official confirmation or explanation as to what exactly the injury was, but by most reports, it was a foot sprain. There’s a high possibility of it having been a Lisfranc injury, as those are often mistaken for simple sprains, which would explain the Bengals’ early optimism for a midseason return for Mixon last year before he was ultimately placed on injured reserve.
And while Cincinnati had originally expected Mixon to return toward the end of the 2020 season, that was prior to Joe Burrow suffering a season-ending ACL injury in Week 11. After that, with Burrow out, there was no reason for the Bengals to rush Mixon back in a lost season. Mixon not returning last year should not be a concern for his status in 2021, as it was likely a purely precautionary move. The lack of any reports of surgery for Mixon is also a good sign, as it indicates that his foot had no fractures, dislocations, or ligaments that were completely torn.
As for injuries prior to 2020, Joe Mixon missed two games as a rookie in 2017 due to a concussion, and he missed two games in 2018 after undergoing a minor arthroscopic knee surgery. Four missed games in his first three seasons should not worry dynasty GMs, especially with none of them having been recurring injuries with long-term concerns. As of right now, there should be little to no concern for Mixon starting the 2021 season healthy.
There was much discussion around Mixon’s off-field concerns when he announced for the 2017 NFL Draft stemming from an incident dating back to 2014. Mixon, a freshman at Oklahoma at the time, was arguing with a woman in a bar. After she shoved and slapped him, Mixon punched her in the face before leaving. Though this incident has marred an otherwise productive career at Oklahoma, Mixon has stayed out of trouble since.
It’s important to mention the incident as part of his history, but given his clean record since entering the league, the level of concern for further off-field incidents is relatively low. The Bengals’ commitment to him on his four-year extension also indicates that the organization has faith in Mixon as well. Dynasty GMs should note his prior history, but it doesn’t lower Mixon dynasty value or make him a particularly risky asset at this point.
Joe Mixon is a big part of the offense, but of course, a lot will hinge on the health of Burrow, their potential franchise quarterback. Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in late November and underwent surgery in early December, which makes him questionable to start in Week 1 this coming September. That said, Burrow is reportedly on schedule with his recovery timeline to begin light running drills in February and begin throwing by early March.
While there are no guarantees, there have been various instances of NFL quarterbacks having torn both their ACL and MCL in December or later who then went on to start in Week 1 of the following season. Additionally, even in more severe cases like Carson Wentz‘s 2017 injury, though he wasn’t ready for the start of the 2018 season, he returned in Week 3, still fairly early in the year. Mixon should be playing in an offense led by Burrow for the majority of the 2021 season barring any setbacks.
Of course, the offensive line still leaves much to be desired. Last season, the Bengals’ offensive line ranked 31st in run-blocking with a dismal 3.9 adjusted line yards, and they ranked 24th in pass protection with a 7.6 percent adjusted sack rate. Part of this was due to lack of talent, but there was also a lack of cohesion with ten different linemen having played at least 200 snaps along the offensive line in 2020.
There’s reason for optimism though, as Cincinnati currently ranks among the top-five NFL teams in terms of salary cap space heading into the offseason. A number of free agent offensive linemen could help bolster the line, including tackles Trent Williams and Taylor Moton as well as guards Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney. Thuney in particular could make sense, as he’s originally from the Cincinnati area.
On top of any possible free agent additions to the offensive line, the 2021 rookie class of offensive linemen is deep. The Bengals could select a premier talent like Penei Sewell out of Oregon or Rashawn Slater out of Northwestern with the no. 5 overall pick. If not, they would still have a number of good prospects at offensive tackle likely available at no. 38 overall. Whether via free agency or the draft, or both, the Bengals have various avenues to improving their abhorrent offensive line this offseason.
The rehire of Frank Pollack as offensive line coach and run game coordinator shouldn’t be understated either, especially since Mixon apparently was a vocal advocate for Pollack’s return. The Bengals ran a lot of inside zone run plays in 2020, but expect to see more wide zone runs in 2021, which bodes well for Mixon’s production. Here’s an excellent detailed breakdown of Pollack’s contributions to the run game.
During Pollack’s tenure as the offensive line coach in Cincinnati in 2018, Joe Mixon had a career year, logging career-highs of 1,168 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry, and eight rushing touchdowns. That season, Mixon averaged 2.7 rushing yards before contact per carry (YBC/Att), which ranked ninth among running backs. Comparing that to the dreadful 1.9 YBC/Att in 2020 should pique the interest of Bengals fans and fantasy players alike. With an expected infusion of talent at offensive line and added efficiency due to coaching, expectations should be cautiously high for Mixon’s rushing production in 2021.
Efficiency & Usage
A lot of factors have changed since Mixon entered the league, including head coach, offensive coordinator, offensive line play, and starting quarterback. Since Mixon didn’t see much playing time as a rookie in 2017, and that was with a completely different coaching staff and surrounding cast, let’s look deeper into his usage and production from 2018 onward.
2018 was Marvin Lewis’s final year as the head coach in Cincinnati, and it was also Mixon’s first year serving as the lead back in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s scheme. If you recall from the above section, 2018 was also when Pollack was serving as the offensive line coach, and Mixon found success behind that line, averaging 2.7 YBC/Att, which ranked ninth among running backs. He also averaged 2.3 yards after contact per carry (YAC/Att), which ranked 15th among running backs.
More importantly, he became a true workhorse back, as shown by the usage chart below. Mixon handled the vast majority of the rushing work while Bernard played the primary pass-catching role out of the backfield.
Current Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan both arrived in 2019, but Pollack left and joined the Jets that year. In Taylor and Callahan’s first season, the offense predictably struggled with Andy Dalton being thrust into the new scheme.
The offensive line took a step back as well following Pollack’s departure, as Mixon averaged just 1.8 YBC/Att, which ranked 31st among running backs. His efficiency after contact stayed level though, with Mixon averaging 2.3 YAC/Att, as he did the year before. His workhorse role continued as well with Mixon maintaining his usage on the ground and even adding to his role as a receiving back, tying Bernard in target share, as seen below.
In 2020, we were only able to witness six games of Mixon in his second year in Taylor and Callahan’s offense, the biggest change being that Burrow replaced Dalton under center. The offense was inconsistent as Burrow adjusted to the NFL, but the offensive line further deteriorated and allowed Mixon an atrocious 1.9 YBC/Att, which ranked 38th among running backs. Mixon himself struggled as well as a runner, averaging just 1.7 YBC/Att.
But through those first six weeks, the usage was incredibly encouraging for Mixon’s fantasy production going forward. First, he was again a true workhorse and saw a career-high 91 percent of the carries over that span. And even more importantly, Mixon became more involved as a pass-catcher, eclipsing Bernard’s usage as a receiver out of the backfield and seeing a double-digit target share for the first time, as the chart below shows.
As a pure runner, Mixon is above average but hardly elite when it comes to creating yards after contact. But as a receiver, when he saw an increased target share last season, Mixon averaged 8.0 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/Rec), which ranked ninth among running backs, albeit on a small sample size of just 21 receptions. Mixon has also been a true workhorse back since becoming the starter in Cincinnati. So what do these trends from 2018 through 2020 tell us about Mixon as a fantasy asset going forward?
Here are Mixon’s fantasy finishes in PPR scoring since becoming the lead back in Cincinnati: RB10 in 2018 playing 14 games, RB17 in 2019 playing 16 games, and RB8 through Week 6 last season prior to the foot injury. Volume of touches and receiving usage are two of the most important factors for running back production, and it would appear that Mixon is poised to enter the 2021 season with both.
In terms of pure usage, Mixon has seen some of the highest utilization among running backs over the last few years, ranking second in running back opportunity share in 2020 and sixth in 2019. With the massive outstanding money owed on his current contract, that’s unlikely to change in the near future, as there’s little incentive for the organization to spend additional funds at the running back position. The current coaching staff is projected to continue using Mixon as a workhorse in 2021 for as long as he can handle the load regardless of whether the no. 2 back is Bernard, Trayveon Williams, or someone else.
Mixon’s receiving usage seemed to have been growing as well early last year before he suffered the foot injury. Even in non-PPR formats, receiving usage has been accounting for a greater share of running backs’ fantasy production in recent years. And in PPR scoring, it’s almost essential for a running back to be involved as a receiver to produce elite numbers.
With the exception of Derrick Henry, the top-12 PPR running backs in 2020 all logged at least 33 receptions with an average of 46 receptions. The top-24 running backs in PPR scoring averaged 41 receptions, and the only one with fewer than 25 catches was Nick Chubb. Achieving elite fantasy production with pure rushing production like we saw from monoliths like Henry and Chubb is becoming increasingly rare.
The expanded usage Mixon saw in the passing game early last year could be the difference between a top-12 running back ceiling and a top-three running back ceiling. And make no mistake: if Mixon continues seeing his workhorse usage on the ground and maintains the double digit target share he saw in 2020, a top-three fantasy finish alongside the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook isn’t outside the realm of possibility for him in 2021, especially if the offensive line and Burrow both improve as expected. At worst, barring injury, Mixon should be a strong RB2 in PPR formats next season.
So is Joe Mixon a Dynasty Buy or Sell?
Per Dynasty League Football’s January ADP, Mixon has slid to 35th overall in 1QB dynasty football startups and is being drafted as the dynasty RB19 on average. Even in his worst season as part of an inefficient offense in 2019, Mixon produced as the RB17 in PPR, which means that he’s likely being drafted at his floor. Mixon’s current ADP puts him behind running backs like Aaron Jones and Miles Sanders, both of whom I view as having lower floors and ceilings than Mixon. Wide receivers like D.J. Moore, Chris Godwin, and Terry McLaurin are also ahead of Mixon in ADP, and I don’t project elite WR1 upside for any of them.
Given what the 2020 class of running backs showed as rookies, it’s difficult to rank Mixon ahead of any of them. But with Mixon turning just 25 years old in July, he’s still in his prime and should be similarly valued in that top-three or at least top-five rookie pick range alongside a few of the exciting 2020 backs. Instead, it seems as though much of the dynasty community values Mixon more so as a mid to late first-round rookie pick. This is evident from a recent Twitter poll shown below where nearly 70 percent of respondents valued him at the 1.07 rookie pick or less, and over 30 percent valued him at the 1.10 rookie pick or less.
What is Joe Mixon worth in #DynastyTrades in 1QB PPR?
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) February 22, 2021
With a strong RB2 floor and top-five upside, the only 2021 rookie I’d take over Joe Mixon right now in 1QB formats would be Ja’Marr Chase, though a couple other rookies could sneak in depending on landing spot. At this point in the offseason, Mixon is a value and a dynasty buy candidate if he can be acquired for the 1.04 rookie pick or less in 1QB leagues and the 1.07 rookie pick or less in superflex formats. And with rookie fever sure to steadily increase in the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, savvy dynasty GMs could even try to wait to acquire him until closer to rookie draft season when Mixon’s value could be even more depressed.
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