Joe Mixon Will Rise Into the Top Tier of Fantasy Football Running Backs in 2019
The 2018 NFL season was not exactly one to remember for the Cincinnati Bengals. Their 6-10 record ensured a third consecutive losing season and a third straight year without a playoff berth. Quarterback Andy Dalton played only 11 games, while star wide receiver A.J. Green only suited up in eight contests. At the conclusion of the campaign, the Bengals parted company with Marvin Lewis, the winningest coach in franchise history, after 16 seasons at the helm.
One bright spot from the season was the emergence of Joe Mixon as a genuine all purpose back. A vastly improved second season in the NFL saw Mixon finish as a top ten PPR back in fantasy, despite not playing a full season. There are plenty of factors to support the theory that Mixon is just getting started, and that he could be one of the best running backs in all of fantasy in 2019.
Mixon's 2017 rookie season saw him amass 626 yards in 14 games, at a disappointing average of 3.5 yards per attempt. Last season, in the same number of games, Mixon piled up 1,168 yards on 237 carries, at a vastly improved 4.9 yard per attempt average. His rushing touchdowns also rose from four as a rookie to eight in 2018. Mixon was given something approaching a workhorse role for the Bengals, averaging 16.9 rush attempts and 3.9 targets per game. He caught 43 of his 55 targets for 296 yards, and scored a further touchdown through the air, giving him nine total scores on the year.
Despite the presence of Giovani Bernard, one of the better pass catching backs in the NFL, Mixon was able to stay on the field for large chunks of the games in which he played. Mixon played on 73% of his available snaps, a top ten rate among running backs last season.
Mixon was one of only seven running backs in 2018 to handle at least 200 carries whilst seeing 50 or more targets in the passing game, as per Ian Hartitz. The other six were Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and James Conner. Pretty good company to be keeping. Mixon's 280 total touches were the fourth most by a Bengals running back since the 2010 season, and the most since BenJarvus Green-Ellis was entrusted with 300 total touches back in 2012.
Efficiency and Explosiveness
Mixon enjoyed significant volume, as one of only 14 running backs to manage at least 200 carries last season. Among these high-volume players, his per-play efficiency was slap bang in the middle of the pack. Mixon averaged 0.03 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry last season, the 7th best among qualifying backs.
Mixon was able to supplement his middling efficiency in terms of fantasy by his use in high-leverage situations. He saw the ninth most goal line carries among all running backs, whilst also proving adept at breaking off big runs. 20 of his total rushing attempts garnered 15 or more yards, at a rate of 8.4%. This was the second most among all running backs, according to PlayerProfiler.
Another area in which Mixon excelled last season was in the creation of his own yards. 449 of Mixon's rushing yards came after the first evaded tackle, or 38.4% of his total. It was just as well Mixon was able to do so much on his own, as he didn't exactly receive a whole load of help from his offensive line. As per PlayerProfiler, Mixon's run blocking unit provided him with the 23rd "best" output in the entire NFL.
Good Times Ahead
The lackluster season for the Bengals may be leading some to sleep on Mixon in fantasy circles.He is currently the 10th running back being selected by the drafters at Fanball, while our projections at numberFire have him down at RB8. But there are reasons to believe that Mixon can outperform both of these ranks by the end of the coming season.
We have already seen that Mixon is comfortable operating as a bell cow back in the NFL. Even with Bernard last season, Mixon was as close to an every-down back as you are likely to find. Bernard was held to fewer than three rushing attempts per game when Mixon was in the lineup whilst averaging 13.5 in the two games he played in that Mixon sat out. Bernard seems destined to be a situational role player for the Bengals, and not competition for Mixon.
A Little Help From his New Friends
Moves the Bengals have made this offseason look set to make Mixon's life a tad easier, too. The team drafted Jonah Williams in the first round of the NFL Draft this past spring, and have immediately installed him as their new left tackle.
This has meant shifting former incumbent Cordy Glenn to left guard, hopefully upgrading a side of the offensive line that offered little joy or success to Mixon in 2018. He averaged a woeful 3.2 yards per carry when rushing behind left tackle last season (as per Sharp Football), yet despite this he did post good per play efficiency when running left.
His 76 carries to that side of the field saw him average 0.09 Rushing NEP per carry with a 44.74% Rushing Success Rate (the percentage of plays on which he generated positive NEP; the league-average for backs was 49.22%). He averaged 0.06 Rushing NEP per carry and had a 44.57% Success Rate going up the middle, and a dismal -0.03 Rushing NEP per carry and 38.81% Success Rate when going to the right. But Cincyjungle.com may have put it best when they noted "Just because you can pound the ball down the center of the defense’s throat doesn’t mean you have to."
Young Minds, Fresh Ideas
Another newcomer is the head coach, Zac Taylor. Taylor comes from the Los Angeles Rams, a team that has had great success in the recent past utilizing a stud running back, namely Todd Gurley. Two areas in which the Rams have had success has been in their use of jet motion to create space for their running backs, and also their desire not to have Gurley slamming into the middle of the line play after play. 119 of Gurley's carries last season were behind the tackles, with only 57 behind the center. Mixon, for his part, had just 45 carries behind his tackles, whilst plowing straight ahead on 62 of his totes.
The Williams/Glenn combination may be tasked with opening up holes for Mixon, the way that former Bengal Andrew Whitworth and Roger Saffold did for Gurley last season. While a fully healthy Gurley (which we may never see again) is an outstanding player in his own right, his average of 0.31 Rushing NEP per carry when running left must have been slightly assisted by his blockers.
Observers have already noticed this offseason that the Bengals are using a lot more pre snap movement than in years past. Mixon faced eight or defenders in the box on 16.03% of his attempts last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Gurley's rate? 8.2%. If Taylor and his offensive staff are able to incorporate a similar style of deception before the snap of a ball, then Mixon should benefit from more friendly looking defensive fronts. In concert with his ability to create yards on his own, this could give Mixon ample opportunities to make big fantasy team assisting plays all season long.
Mixon and the Bengals could also benefit from their having to play a soft schedule in 2019 .According to Sharp Football, the Bengals have the easiest strength of schedule in terms of rush defense in the entire NFL. But this is only good news if the Bengals themselves are better than they were a year ago. The FanDuel Sportsbook currently has the over/under for the Bengals at six wins in the year ahead, which could lead to a shortage of favorable game scripts in which Mixon is allowed to rack up the attempts and thus the fantasy points.
However, Mixon showed last season that he is able to be productive in less than ideal circumstances, thanks to his innate creativity as well as his involvement as a pass catcher. An improvement to his supporting cast can only help him not face such adverse conditions on a weekly basis.
All signs therefore point towards the new season being a good one for a team with a head coach whom we suspect will lean on his ground game and the running backs who he sends out to carry the ball. If 2018 is anything to go by, more often than not, this running back will be Joe Mixon. His current ADP marks him as a player offering excellent value, and one for whom a big season awaits.