The fifth-year RB has struggled the past couple of seasons, but there is reason to believe that he and this offense are ready to take off in 2021.
So much of this offseason has been spent debating if the Bengals did enough to improve their offensive line or how much Ja’Marr Chase improves this offense. Meanwhile, there has been a great deal of excitement about Joe Burrow will be able to do with all the surrounding weapons.
But it could be a different Joe that ends up being the x-factor of Cincinnati’s offense.
Weight: 220 lbs
Hometown: Oakley, CA
Experience: fifth year
Mixon is entering the first season of the four-year, $48 million extension he signed prior to the 2020 season. If he meets all of his bonuses, Mixon will make a little over $8 million this season with a cap hit of $8.137 million.
Clearly, Bengals management expects Mixon to be a key piece of this offense for several seasons. The way the contract is structured, the team won’t be able to reasonably get out of it before the 2023 season, when they can release him as a post June 1st cut and save roughly $10 million in cap space.
If Mixon shows up in this offense, that will all be a moot point.
Cincinnati drafted Mixon in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. It was a move that understandably brought controversy, as Mixon had served a suspension for an entire season at Oklahoma following an incident in which he punched a woman.
The Bengals decided that was an isolated incident and that they wouldn’t have to worry about Mixon off the field moving forward. Their trust paid off, as we have yet to hear about anything involving Mixon off the field during his time in the NFL. In fact, he has been one of the team’s better leaders and teammates over his four years.
His first two years showed us the potential that many fans saw when he was drafted. Mixon exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2017 with a flurry of fancy moves and a seemingly countless number of highlight plays despite only touching the ball 208 times.
He then led the AFC in rushing in 2018, despite missing two games due to a knee injury. He also averaged 4.9 yards per carry and eclipsed 1,400 total yards.
Joe Mixon once led the AFC in rushing.
— Jeff Bell (@4WhomJBellTolls) July 18, 2021
That was the year Frank Pollack was the offensive line coach. But that offseason, Pollack was allowed to leave and replaced with Jim Turner under new head coach Zac Taylor. Mixon was very unhappy at the time.
Because we’re just gunna let the best line coach in the league go right?? Makes sense https://t.co/0BuhoiBvLt
— ⚡️Primetime!!!⚡️ (@Joe_MainMixon) January 15, 2019
Apparently he knew the impact that Pollack’s departure would have on the running game. His production took a hit in 2019. He started off the year very poorly but his total rushing yards (1,137) still looks good on paper thanks to a late run of production: three performances of 136 yards or more in his last four games.
His numbers fell off further in 2020, when he was limited by injuries and poor offensive line play. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry and gained just 428 yards rushing in six games, as most defenses dared Burrow to beat them through the air by stacking the box with eight defenders,
Outlook for 2021
Mixon is now officially the guy in the Bengals backfield after the team released Giovanni Bernard, who had been with the team since 2013. This is Mixon’s year to prove he deserved the type of extension that is somewhat rare for running backs in today’s NFL. And a high level of production will be needed from him to get Cincinnati’s offense off the ground.
The good news is: Turner is gone and, back in January, Pollack was brought back. Mixon, knowing the implications for his game, was ecstatic. He was seen “hooting and hollering” immediately after. And he had this to tweet:
Ahhhh!!!! Let’s go!!!! It’s A Great Day To Be A Bengal!!! #WhoDey
— ⚡️Primetime!!!⚡️ (@Joe_MainMixon) January 9, 2021
Pollack’s return—and added title of “run game coordinator”—will give Mixon a greater level of comfort in the offense. When combined with the new additions of tackle Riley Reiff (free agent signing from the Minnesota Vikings) and guard Jackson Carman (second round pick out of Clemson), it is highly likely that there will be a lot more holes for Mixon to run through in 2021.
Further, the addition of Chase, the receiver drafted fifth overall who set records with Burrow at LSU, will help keep safeties out of the box. Burrow and A.J. Green were never really able to get on the same page on deep passes and take advantage of coverage with no help over the top. If Burrow and Chase are able to connect on a few deep throws, defenses will no longer be able to default to that strategy. That vertical threat makes the offensive line’s job easier, the benefits of which trickle down to Mixon.
But does that mean Mixon will be a top running back? The debate rages on.
Is Mixon an elite RB?
How do you rank Mixon? This is one of the most important questions on Twitter.
Joe Mixon is a top __ RB in the NFL
— PFF (@PFF) July 18, 2021
Bengals fans insist he’s a top 10 running back.
Hot take: Joe Mixon is a top 10 RB talent wise.
— ☄ (@samwendling_) July 20, 2021
People are underrating Joe Mixon so much man dude legit doesn’t have a legit flaw in his game and can be an everydown back plus receiving back, and he can block
He’s a top 10 runningback and will show everyone just how talented he is
— Tyler Boyd SZN (@WennisBoydfan) July 17, 2021
While non-Bengals fans don’t usually go that far, many of them are beginning to feel Mixon deserves a bit more recognition.
Watching this bengals game on NFL Network. Joe Mixon isn’t mentioned as one of the more naturally gifted runners in the NFL.
That’s wild to me! He has the power, long speed, receiving chops, & multiple moves to evade defenders.
A nasty dead leg too! pic.twitter.com/7tnXldWflr
— Damian Parson (@DP_NFL) July 18, 2021
I have a really important announcement to make:
I… I might be in on Joe Mixon.
— Jon Helmkamp (@JonHelmkamp) July 19, 2021
And Mixon, who Bill Belichick said was “probably” the best running back in the league just a couple of years ago, still appears to have the respect of the people who actually work in the NFL. A recent poll conducted by ESPN revealed that execs, coaches, scouts, and players have Mixon ranked as the ninth best running back in the league.
— uyu drew (@UYUDrew) July 15, 2021
In the end, these rankings don’t tell us much. We all know Mixon has incredible physical talent. So, if healthy, he can be a top—maybe even the top—rusher. The only questions concern his decisiveness and his ability to read blockers, hit holes more quickly, and run hard through them. In the video below, we debate how good Mixon is and explain why this is the year for him to put it all together and prove he deserved to be given a $48 million contract.
You can also listen on iTunes or using the player below:
In short, Mixon must reverse his struggles from the past two seasons to give this offense the mix of pass and run that it needs. This isn’t to say they need to “establish the run” to open up the passing game, as that has been proven to be an outdated concept.
Rather, Mixon needs to take better advantage of his opportunities so that Burrow doesn’t have to throw 40+ times a game, something he did four times in nine full contests (along with 34 attempts in the Washington game in which he was injured), especially with the second-year QB is coming off an ACL injury. With Pollack back and a few better pieces upfront, it is time for Mixon to get back to his 2018 level. If he can do that, there will be some offensive fireworks in Cincinnati.
Roster Odds: 100%.