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Joe Mixon: Third-Year Breakout or Early-Round Bust?

There wasn’t a lot that went right for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018. The team finished in last place in the AFC North and lost nine of their last 11 games, in large part because of an offense that was decimated by injuries. However, the play of second-year tailback Joe Mixon was a bright spot. After averaging a mediocre 3.5 yards a carry as a rookie, the light bulb came on for the second-round pick out of Oklahoma—an AFC-leading 1,168 yards on the ground, over 1,400 total yards and over 5.2 yards each and every time he touched the ball. Mixon also finished the 2018 season inside the top-10 among running backs in PPR fantasy points.

Mixon’s big Year 2 has brought with it a high sticker price in fantasy drafts this year. Per the ADP information at Fantrax, Mixon’s presently being drafted 10th among running backs—ahead of the likes of Dalvin Cook of the Vikings and Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars. He’s the 14th overall pick on average (ahead of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Cleveland wideout Odell Beckham), and there are some drafts where Mixon didn’t make it out of Round 1.

That Mixon’s a talented young tailback is a given. But much like many of the running backs being drafted around him in 2019, there are questions—uncertainties that have actually amplified substantially in recent weeks. Are fantasy owners getting carried away with Mixon? Has the hype gotten out of hand? Or is Mixon about to take another step forward and join the ranks of the elite at fantasy football’s most important position?

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The Case for a Joe Mixon Breakout

There are some big changes in the Queen City in 2019—chief among them a new head coach in Zac Taylor. As Geoff Hobson wrote for the team’s website, the Sean McVay protégé made it clear that Mixon and the run game are a critical part of his scheme.

“It’s a big part of our scheme. It’s easy to say, ‘We want to run the ball,’” said Taylor, putting a fist down on the table. “We at least want to give the illusion we’re going to run the ball. You want to be under center at the line of scrimmage and present the defense with we can run it left, right. We’re not in the (shot) gun and you’re a little bit constricted that way. The key is to be under center so all the options are on the table. Run the play-action, the play-action screen. All that stuff has to be on the table.”

The Bengals have reportedly incorporated elements of McVay’s offense this summer, using more pre-snap movement in an effort to give Mixon more running lanes and better matchups than he had a year ago when he faced eight-man fronts with regularity. ESPN’s Andre Snellings believes that scheme and the return to health of players like quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green could send Mixon’s fantasy value rocketing skyward ala Todd Gurley for much of the past couple of seasons.

“Mixon is poised to explode this season,” Snellings said. “He is coming off an impressive second NFL season, and at 22 years old is still improving. He is set to play in a smarter offensive set this season, utilizing elements of the Rams scheme that have proved so successful for Gurley in the last couple of seasons. The Bengals’ skill players start the season healthy, and the team has the ability to put points on the board at rates that should afford Mixon plenty of scoring chances. Mixon is an every-down back, with 73 catches in the last two seasons, numbers that are also likely to increase in the Rams-like scheme that saw Gurley catch 59 passes last season alone.”

Snellings predicts a top-five fantasy finish for Mixon this season. Given the upward trajectory of Mixon’s ADP, it’s a bandwagon he isn’t on alone.

The Case for a Bust

Of course, this is fantasy football, so for every pundit high on a player, there’s one who is at least a bit more disinclined. Where Mixon’s concerned, you can slot Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated in the latter group. Beller’s not willing to go so far as to label Mixon a bust, but he does believe that Mixon’s being over-drafted.

“Drafting strictly by ECR (expert consensus ranking),” Beller said, “grabbing Mixon means passing on Julio Jones, James Conner, Odell Beckham (No. 1 on our list of players we like more than their value), Travis Kelce and Michael Thomas, just to name the five players who slot immediately after him in the rankings. There’s nearly zero risk that any of those players fail to live up to that draft-day price tag, which attaches a significant opportunity cost to Mixon considering his potential downside. The Bengals could be very bad, and it takes a special set of circumstances for a running back on a bottom-feeding team to return first-round value.”

“Mixon certainly could dominate Cincinnati’s backfield on the ground this year the way (Saquon) Barkley did last year,” Beller continued, “but he’s never been a huge part of the aerial attack. Mixon had 34 targets as a rookie and 55 last year and has a career receiving line of 73 receptions for 583 yards and one touchdown. The new coaching staff could increase his role in the passing game, but Giovani Bernard is still in the fold, and the Bengals have a couple of high-volume receivers in A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. Mixon’s too good and has too large a presence in the offense to be a bust, but there’s serious risk in treating him as a no-doubt RB1, and that’s what his ECR and ADP ask you to do.”

The Bengals are probably going to be a last-place team again, and there are quite a few mouths to feed in the Cincy passing game. But the “Suckcinnati” nickname and passing-game looks aren’t the only potential issues facing Mixon.

For starters, Taylor made it clear while speaking to Hobson that the team intends to try to manage Mixon’s workload in an effort to keep him fresh and on the field. What happened to Gurley last year is quite the cautionary tale.

“It’s harder to take your starting running back who was the team MVP the year before off the field,” Taylor said. “But any team would say you have to take care of those guys late in the year. You have to find ways to get them off the field and get the No. two or No. three guy on the field. It’s hard. It’s a challenge in games. But you have to create a plan you try and stick to and do your best to keep those guys fresh.”

The biggest issue facing Mixon may well be the one getting the least run. Last year, the Bengals ranked 22nd in the NFL in run blocking per Football Outsiders. The Bengals took steps to improve the offensive line in the offseason, but the renovations have hit a major snag. First rookie Jonah Williams, who was projected to be the team’s starting left tackle, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Then left guard Clint Boling surprisingly announced his retirement.

Now the oft-injured Cordy Glenn is kicking back outside to tackle, journeyman John Jerry will ostensibly replace Boling and Cincinnati’s line looks like one of the weaker units on the division’s weakest team.

The Verdict

There was a time not too long ago when I’d have come down on the opposite side of this argument. Mixon’s an immensely talented young tailback just coming into his own as a player. The potential is there for a top-five statistical season.

The problem is that my confidence has steadily eroded that Mixon will realize that potential in 2019—while his ADP has moved in the opposite direction.

Yes, Zac Taylor is a Sean McVay protégé. But that hardly guarantees that the first-time play-caller will enjoy a fraction of the success that McVay’s had in Los Angeles. And the 36-year-old has his work cut out for him with a Bengals run game going that ranked outside the top-20 each of the past two seasons.

The issues on the Bengals’ offensive line aren’t going to make that any easier. McVay’s been blessed over his two seasons in LA with one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL. To say that the Bengals can’t exactly match that is an understatement—and yet that factor has been all but ignored by fantasy drafters.

He’s also yet to play in all 16 games in a season at the professional level.

This isn’t to say I don’t like Joe Mixon at all. There aren’t many players I won’t draft in fantasy if the price is right.

But the price isn’t right with Mixon anymore. He’s being drafted at his fantasy ceiling. It’s going to be very difficult for Mixon to out-perform his lofty ADP in 2019.

And if it gets any higher, Mixon may be hard-pressed to even match it.

What’s your take on Joe Mixon? For more from Gary and all of our football crew head on over to the 2019 Fantrax Fantasy Football Draft Kit for more great strategy, analysis, and rankings.

A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Davenport has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications, including the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization’s Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. He knows football. Or so he’s heard.

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