Fantasy Football: Is Joe Mixon Poised for a Breakout Season in 2018?
The people are thirsty for running backs. Using FantasyFootballCalculator.com’s average draft position (ADP) data, 15 running backs are being selected in the first 24 picks of fantasy drafts this year. There were just 11 backs selected in that window in 2016 and 2017, and then 12 in 2014 and 2015.
The behavior is understandable. For the first time in what feels like ages, we are able to project sizeable workloads for a significant number of backs. Last year’s RB12 in fantasy drafts was Isaiah Crowell, a between-the-tackles grinder who had never reached 1,000 yards rushing and who would be splitting that backfield with Duke Johnson -- and on a bad offense, no less.
This year’s RB12? Jordan Howard, who posted the second-most rushing yards in the league in 2016 and the fifth-most rushing attempts and fourth-highest rush attempt market share in 2017. The position just feels much deeper than it has in recent years.
Outside of those top 24 picks in drafts this year, the running back position starts to thin out. While 15 backs have ADPs in the top 24 picks, just 8 have ADPs between picks 25 and 48. The backs going in these rounds -- like Derrick Henry, Alex Collins and Jay Ajayi -- have questions regarding their workloads. They have upside if they can secure a substantial workload, but the uncertainty surrounding their respective backfields is driving down their ADPs.
However, because of the lack of uncertainty in his backfield, there is one runner that stands out in the third round of drafts: Joe Mixon.
The Cincinnati Bengals were a mess last year, and it appears fantasy drafters have lost sight of Joe Mixon as a result. The team had a disastrous start to the season, and it led to the firing of its offensive coordinator after Week 2.
Perhaps no individual felt their losses more acutely than Andy Dalton, who experienced his lowest yards per attempt (6.7) and completion percentage (59.9%) since his rookie year. For the first time in his career, Dalton posted a negative Net Expected Points (NEP) per Pass – one of numberFire’s signature metrics that measures how many points a quarterback adds to his team’s expected points with each pass. His mark of -0.02 meant that each time Dalton dropped back to pass, his team could expect to score -0.02 fewer points. Yikes.
From a volume standpoint, 2017 was an outlier for the Bengals in called run plays. The team called just 377 run plays last year, which ranked 29th in the league and was the team’s lowest count in the current millennium. The league average was 437.9 run plays, more than 60 additional run plays than the Bengals called last year.
What do you get when you put all of these things together? The league's 32nd-ranked offense in yards per game.
We’ve established that 2017 just wasn’t the Bengals’ year, which carried over into their backfield’s disappointing fantasy football production. But everything that made last year so hard for them screams regression -- or, in other words, a bounce back.
We can expect Dalton to return to his typical level of play in 2018 and not repeat his career-worst 2017 performance. We can expect the team to call more run plays after it called its fewest in almost 20 years. They even took steps toward addressing their offensive line, using their first pick in the 2018 draft on center Billy Price and acquiring tackle Cordy Glenn via trade from the Buffalo Bills.
This all lines up nicely for Joe Mixon, whose only real competition for backfield touches is Giovani Bernard. Bernard’s presence may scare away drafters from taking Mixon at his current ADP of 3.02, but the Bengals made it clear last season that Mixon was their go-to guy.
From Week 3 (when Bill Lazor took over as offensive coordinator) through Week 12, the Bengals gave Mixon 158 opportunities to touch the ball (targets and carries). In that same time frame, Bernard saw just 44 opportunities. In previous seasons, Bernard primarily served as the Bengals’ pass-catching running back and ran behind Jeremy Hill. From Week 3 to Week 12, Mixon out-carried Bernard and, more surprisingly, out-targeted Bernard 25 to 22.
The troubles came from Week 13 on. In their Week 13 matchup against the Steelers -- in which Mixon looked unstoppable while averaging almost 5.0 yards per carry -- Mixon suffered a concussion. The head injury forced him out of that game as well as the following two. When he returned in Week 16, he suffered a minor ankle sprain that kept him out for the majority of the game. While Mixon was out, Bernard played quite well and, in the final game of the season, Bernard and Mixon tied with 19 opportunities each.
Bernard’s fantasy success during Mixon’s absence definitely stung for those who drafted and held onto Mixon in 2017, but don’t let it cloud your judgment going into drafts this year. The Bengals made it clear which back they thought deserved more touches when they gave Mixon 78.22% of the running back opportunities when healthy.
The numbers support the Bengals' decision to give Mixon more opportunities. Last season, the rookoie posted higher Rushing Success Rates and Target Success Rates -- the percentage of a back’s rushes and targets that added positive value to their team’s expected points total -- than Bernard.
Overall, Mixon was simply more likely to add value on a per-play basis than Bernard.
Mixon As A Prospect
Mixon certainly under-performed in fantasy football in 2017, but so did the whole team. It would be lazy to write Mixon off just because he had one underwhelming season on a disappointing offense. However, we’ve also never seen Mixon live up to expectations on an NFL field. So if the Bengals' offense and its improved offensive line bounce back, what can we expect from Mixon, and why?
We’ve covered that he should maintain the dominant share of the team's running back opportunities. If the team's play calling regresses to league averages -- and it should -- we can expect the team to call additional run plays for Mixon. If, say, they call an additional 60 run plays in 2018, putting them at the 2017 league average, and Mixon maintains the roughly 65% market share of rushing attempts he claimed from Week 3 to Week 12 last year, that would add up to an additional 39 carries for Mixon (not to mention the share he'll inherit from the departed Jeremy Hill). But do we have any reason to believe that he should succeed given that extra opportunity?
The answer is yes. Mixon’s 1.54 Yards Created per Carry – a metric PlayerProfiler.com uses to measure how many yards a running back creates after evading his first tackle – ranked 13th in the league in 2017. Ranking 13th in a metric that helps to isolate a running back’s talent from his offensive line play is a good indicator of his individual talent, but his production in college is even more exciting.
In his final season at Oklahoma Mixon rushed for 1,274 yards at a 6.8 (91st percentile) clip while logging an elite target share of 11.7%. He was touted by some as the best running back prospect in the class, and the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, despite his trouble off the field.
Last year Mixon also joined an exclusive group of running backs that shared similar workloads in their rookie seasons: 21-year old rookies. Specifically, the only other backs drafted since 2012 that were under 21 years old at this point in their inaugural seasons are Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Tre Mason and Trent Richardson. Tre Mason and Trent Richardson may have flamed out of the league, but both had extremely exciting starts to their careers. In Mason’s case, Gurley (another member of this club) pushed him out of the backfield after Mason’s successful rookie campaign.
This is a small, productive club and Mixon is a part of it. His rookie season was a disappointment in fantasy, but the volume he received was encouraging -- especially when you take into account head coach Marvin Lewis’ reluctance to play his rookies. With a full year under his belt, Mixon should see more carries coming his way.
The Bengals are due for a pretty big bounce back after a disastrous 2017 season, and Joe Mixon might stand to benefit most of all. The team should call far more run plays, meaning more opportunities for Mixon. Improvements to the offensive line should help Mixon’s per-play efficiency and help to put the offense in more scoring positions than a year ago when the Bengals’ six rushing touchdowns tied for the second-worst mark in the NFL.
Giovani Bernard has seen his rushing market share dip every year since entering the league and is Mixon’s only competition for opportunities, meaning Mixon could step into top-notch market share numbers.
The second-year back stands out among other options available in the third round of fantasy drafts this year as a unique talent with a dominant share of his team’s running back opportunities. In a season where it appears most drafters are starting by drafting two running backs, pairing Joe Mixon in the third round with two elite wide receivers makes for an appealing pivot strategy.