Fantasy Football: Can Joe Mixon Make an Immediate Impact With the Cincinnati Bengals?
Running back Joe Mixon was considered by some to be the top rusher in this past year's NFL Draft class, but he wasn't expected to get drafted early on because of some poor off-field choices he made while enrolled at Oklahoma.
Despite that, the Cincinnati Bengals took a chance by selecting him with the 48th overall pick. With Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard already in the mix, there is a level of uncertainty that surrounds his role in the offense.
He does have the skills necessary to take control in the backfield, though, which makes him an intriguing option in fantasy football.
Times Are a Changin'
The Bengals are a team going through some changes on offense.
Their offensive line seemingly got weaker with the losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, and instead of addressing the position via the draft or free agency, they opted for in-house replacements in Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.
Pro Football Focus ranks Cincinnati as having one of the league's worst offensive lines, which shouldn't be shocking because of the offseason losses suffered.
It may not be all bad, though. Evan Silva of Rotoworld noted that these issues are likely to cause offensive coordinator Ken Zampese to shift toward a high-percentage offense that features more short passes.
The organization's run-focused offense and strength of schedule are also working in the rookie's favor -- the Bengals are slated to face one of the easier schedules this year with regard to run defenses. And with 76 unaccounted for carries from last year, there's a chance for Mixon to start making an impact immediately.
Competition in the Backfield
Among the incumbent running back tandem, Hill is the early-down and red zone specialist, but he has struggled in each of the last two years after a breakout rookie campaign.
Those struggles can clearly be seen when using numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP uses historical down and distance data to determine what is expected of a player on each individual play. Positive NEP is earned when they perform above expectation, and vice versa. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.
Off the strength of 222 rushing attempts in 2014, Hill produced a 0.09 Rushing NEP per attempt and a 44.59% Success Rate, which is the percentage of runs that contribute towards a positive NEP. The below table shows his decline in each of the last two seasons.
|Year||Rushes||Rushing NEP per Attempt||Success Rate|
Producing a negative Rushing NEP per attempt isn't uncommon because rushes are inherently less valuable than passes. The league-average rate in 2015 was -0.04, and the mark in 2016 was -0.02. Rushing NEP can also be heavily influenced by touchdowns or fumbles, so the better metric to measure Hill's actual performance here is Success Rate.
Hill's Success Rate can be seen above, and the below table displays the Success Rate for running backs who received a similar number of carries as Hill last year.
It's worth adding context to Hill's performance, though, as rushing efficiency depends a lot on team situation. On 91 carries, Bernard posted a 40.66% Rushing Success Rate in 2016, and Rex Burkhead increased NEP on 54.05% of his 74 carries. That still doesn't help Hill too much, but his Success Rate overall still hovered near the league-average rate of 40.28%.
While weighing 228 pounds on his pro day, Mixon ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, putting him in the 91st percentile for size adjusted speed, according to Player Profiler. He also forced a missed tackle every 3.9 touches at Oklahoma, while 57 percent of his total yardage came on runs of 15-plus yards. The on-field potential is there, and Hill's struggles (or at least mediocrity) in recent years could open the door for him.
As for Bernard, he's still making his way back from the ACL tear he suffered last year in Week 10 and hasn't practiced yet. He still may miss some games this year, and if he does start 2017 on the sidelines, that could open a spot up for Mixon to start showcasing his talents.
Bernard averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 91 attempts last year, but did bolster his fantasy value by pulling in 39 passes for 336 yards. The below table shows how he's performed each of the last two years with regard to NEP.
|Year||Rushing NEP per Attempt||Success Rate||Reception NEP per Target||Success Rate|
Of the running backs with at least 39 receptions in 2016, Bernard ranked 12th out of 19 qualifiers in Success Rate and finished 10th out of 20 qualifiers in 2015.
Mixon caught 37 passes for 538 yards last year and led the rookie classes with 2.83 yards per route, according to Pro Football Focus. It was a small sample, but he also proved to be a sufficient pass blocker, allowing just one hurry on 48 attempts.
Bernard's injury should allow the rookie rusher to take hold of the third-down role immediately, giving us a chance to see what he's capable of rather quickly.
In standard 12-team drafts, Mixon is currently going off the board as the seventh pick in the third round. That makes him the 15th running back to find a home, just behind Leonard Fournette, Isaiah Crowell, and Lamar Miller.
Among this group, only Mixon provides true three-down, workhorse upside -- if you buy into the concerns surrounding Fournette's pass-game involvement, Duke Johnson's presence impacting Crowell's receiving upside, and Miller's potentially lightened workload for 2016.
Given his situation in Cincinnati, the run-heavy nature of their offense, and the question marks that surround the other running backs already on the roster, Mixon has a legitimate shot at being an immediate contributor and outperforming expectations this season.