The Bengals Need to Pass to Mixon or we should Pass on Mixon
Before I get my licks in on Joe Mixon, I don't want the tone to go overboard. I'll just say we've set a higher standard atop the board and my ranking of Joe Mixon as a mid 2nd round pick isn't egregious. However, it's low enough that I'm risking zero exposure across all leagues and I'm compelled to defend the half round margin. I can't get him much higher in my rankings and I fear he'll only gain value as this Bengals offense builds buzz. The argument is, do we want Joe Mixon in the 1st round of fantasy drafts as our RB1? Along the same lines, do the Bengals want to make him an integral part of their future? Mixon needs to be paid as he enters the final season of his rookie contract.
In real football terms we can say with conviction that Mixon has an elite ceiling at his position and his ability in all facets of the game is rivaled by few backs. To say it for fantasy though, is assuming too much and doing the term "elite" a disservice. Beyond how successful the Bengals will be in 2020, we have to call into question the coaching, decision making, and how fruitful the offense will be for the running back position. Ceilings are reached on the backs of spiked touchdown seasons and/or excessive volume in the passing game, both of which are leaps of faith we have to make with Joe Mixon.
THE BENGALS CONTINUE TO OPERATE IN THE UPSIDE DOWN DESPITE A NEW COACH
On the surface, the Bengals franchise worst 2-14 season in 2019 would lead one to believe that they were constantly playing in disadvantageous game scripts, but they weren't. The Bengals were leading at some point in 12 of their 16 games! Cincinnati were one of the pass heaviest teams in neutral game scripts and frankly, any way you break it down, Mixon was criminally underused in the passing game. He had fewer targets and catches than in 2018 as his market share fell from 12.5% to just 7.6%. Last year 34 running backs in the NFL saw a higher percentage of their team's targets...
Joe Mixon is oddly a floor play in 2020 in my opinion. As a remarkably young 23 year old player who exudes upside, it sounds wrong to call Mixon a "floor" play. We need to see him used in the passing game before he can reach the elite status he's bordered on for multiple years now, from a dynasty value standpoint. There's optimism to get in on the ground floor and if this Bengals offense does take immediate flight, Mixon will live up to his ADP. Point being, we've already seen Mixon light it up on the ground, and considering the abysmal offensive line in Cincinnati, his success has left an impression. Even with this success on the ground, the rushing work is still 3 times less valuable work than pass catching and the team isn't built for an outlier season on the ground.
The offensive line is a battle all Bengals will fight in 2020. They can improve and still be terrible in the trenches on offense. They've been a bottom 5 unit for 3 years straight and hover near the basement in stuffed run rates and power success. It could also be deemed the most fragile offensive line in the league, even with Jonah Williams returning. The offensive line woes and lack of creative usage makes what Mixon's already accomplished something to marvel at.
He recorded his 2nd straight season over 1100 yards rushing and was top 5 in volume on the ground, and ranked top 10 in production. Where the spotlight shines on the line and the lack of scheme advantages is looking at his yards before contact. Per ProFootballReference.com, Joe ranked 15th in total YBC and his 1.8 YBC/att was 32nd in the NFL. The stuffed runs and poor push up front led to 20% of his carries resulting in 0 or negative yards. What all of that denotes is how frequently Mixon did it himself.
Yards after contact is a far more predictive metric than YBC and it's also one that Joe Mixon has ranked top 10 in for the past 2 seasons consecutively. Mixon smashed in that facet of the game going back to his much maligned CFB days. His ability to accumulate yards after contact and shake tackles in space is thanks to Joe's size and speed. These are his best attributes and what we are investing in with that first round ADP. The after contact figures really allow us to glean that part of his game even under poor conditions in Cincy.
JOE MIXON IS AN ELITE TALENT BUT STILL HASN'T HIT 250 PPR POINTS
With respect to Derrick Henry and to a lesser extent Chris Carson, Mixon separates from the bunch and creeps closer to the upper echelon due to his ability to make people miss and by what he can do with the ball in his hands. I personally prefer Mixon over bangers like Derrick Henry, and normally chase one profile of player while ignoring the other for fantasy squads... I love Joe Mixon! Unfortunately the talent has yet to translate into the special season we would expect from our top pick in a fantasy draft. On PlayerProfiler.com, Mixon ranked top 5 in evaded tackles, juke rate and yards created, yet the team threw him the ball less than 8% of the time.
The high leverage work is another factor that I think is not discussed enough when talking Mixon. Joe Mixon has seen as many goal line carries as anybody in the last couple years. He's the only RB in the NFL who saw over 75% of his teams goal line carries in both 2018 and 2019. Before we jump to the conclusion that this offense will improve dramatically, remember the Bengals have one of the lowest projected win totals at the moment. Plus, Mixon was 2nd in total goal line carries last year!
We do not have to worry about the QB effecting Mixon's share at the goal line. That's a theory I've heard in some sewing circles but Joe Mixon should retain close to a 75% share, even if Joe Burrow does call his own number from time to time. Andy Dalton commanded almost 20% of the volume at the goal line in 2019 while Gio Bernard was left for dead. Basically, Mixon saw elite market share at the goal line overall and that still wasn't enough to get him over the 250 PPR point hump.
Gio Bernard's release was something I thought would have happened already. If Gio were to bite the dust, that would offer the team just under $3 million of cap relief, and just over 80 touches up for grabs. The Bengals currently have no vacated rushing volume and just over 60 targets gone in the passing game with A.J. Green possibly coming back into the fold. The route to a top 5 season for Mixon won't be because Gio Bernard or A.J. Green leave. It relies entirely on Zac Taylor using Mixon in the passing game.
RECENCY BIAS OR WHATS TO COME?
Over the 1st half of 2019 we saw Mixon handle just 15 touches per game, averaged 3.2 YPC and was the RB31 heading into week 9. Over the 2nd half of the season he catapulted to 24 touches a game and all 5 of his rushing scores came after week 9, all of his 20+ yard carries as well. After a dreadful fantasy season up until that point, Mixon proceeded to preform as an RB1 in 5 of his final 8 games and was the RB6 overall during that stretch. The tale of two seasons is made all the more confusing when we see that the pass catching work remained the same through both splits. Again, we can argue about 1st half Joe vs 2nd half Mixon but the bottom line is we don't see many top 5 running backs who derived just 37% of their fantasy points in the passing game. That's too low Bob.
The Bengals are projected to win less than 6 games in every sports book, making Mixon an even tougher sell and a more devastating travesty of wasted talent in the passing game! I want to give the passing work to Mixon, and we saw his incoming QB Joe Burrow make Clyde Edward-Helaire the most used pass catching back in recent memory at the CFB level (And a 1st round pick for that matter). The issue is, I made that exact argument for him before last season, and throughout the year. Week after week referencing his talent and upside in that facet of the game. Now, there's no discernible reason the Bengals will unleash him after not doing so last year. The advantages pass catching by the RB position can provide is a topic for debate among head coaches, yet year after year the best coachings are giving significant targets to their running backs.
Should the opportunity be heaped on Mixon, he will thrive. And we have seen glimpses of this potential already. Although he was outside the top 25 in RB targets and receptions, he was 17th in yards after catch and his 9.6 YAC per reception ranked 6th best. Just like his yards after contact numbers this just illuminates the danger he is in space.
It's important to note that Cincinnati had one of the most difficult strength of schedules last year. They go from a league worst SOS vs. the pass to a top 5 projected SOS vs. the pass in 2020 per SharpFootballStats.com. I expect the team to prioritize the new Joe's environment and that could be by letting him throw the ball to get into a rhythm. The idea that they cater to his comfort level exists too. That would come with 4 wide receiver sets and other 0 RB sets like we saw from the LSU offense last year.
A good RB is hard to find and that elusive blow up season is what we all seek. It does feel premature that the masses have gathered once again this year to say Joe Mixon is that guy. Stop me if you've heard that one before. His annual ADP has always left very little wiggle room and though he's not the worst bet to finally exceed 250 points in PPR this season, there's a couple other players on far better offenses, behind far better offensive lineman, under stellar coaching and play calling, with locked in volume in the passing game. Give me Miles Sanders and Clyde Edwards-Helaire over Joe Mixon in 2020.