It has been a while since we’ve witnessed a fantasy running back as polarizing and talented as Joe Mixon. Last I can recall is Demarco Murray, maybe (feel free to offer suggestions, could be a fun discussion topic). Either way, the Joe Mixon takes are HOT. Some believe he can’t crack the top 10 again, and others project him as a candidate to finish as the number one fantasy running back.
Either one of those things can happen. I mean anything is possible. But what I want to analyze is the notion Mixon can’t be a top-five fantasy running back. This idea has been tossed around the twitter-verse and all over the fantasy community, but there is a strong case he will take the leap this year and elevate his play in 2019.
The arrival of former LA Rams QB coach Zac Taylor and the West Coast offense is a major indicator Joe Mixon will be better utilized this year. Taylor played a major role in overseeing and constructing one of the most high powered offenses in the league last year. Sean McVay noted: “he was instrumental our in third-down game-planning.” Placing more emphasis on passing the ball certainly didn’t hurt Todd Gurley’s fantasy production last season. Gurley was the number three fantasy running back with 1,831 total yards and a remarkable 21 touchdowns in 14 games.
The Bengals new offensive philosophy will have a dual effect, improving Mixon’s rushing and passing production. A breakdown of each aspect reveals how Joe Mixon and Zac Taylor can take his game to the next level.
Receptions have become increasingly important due to leagues adopting points-per-reception as the standard fantasy league format. Gurley received 81 targets securing 59 receptions for 580 yards in 2018. Compare that to Mixon’s 55 targets and 43 receptions for 296 yards, and we realize he was severely underutilized in the passing game. We also know that a target in the passing game is worth more than a rushing attempt.
Critics may look down on his yards after the catch (YAC) numbers because he’s the 19th ranked running back in this category according to ESPN. While true, we have to consider the fact Mixon only received 50% of the teams running back targets. Each of the top five running backs received at least 80% of the teams running back targets besides Alvin Kamara, who received over 70%. Mixon’s usage and targets are about to skyrocket, and so is his overall fantasy ranking.
The numbers prove he was a more efficient receiver, even when given less opportunity. He managed an 88.2% catch rate his rookie season. Pretty impressive. Last year he posted a 78.2% catch rate to Gurley’s 72.8%. He holds an 82% career average catch rate but only received 50% of the teams positional targets. Gurley received 81% of Rams running backs total targets. Mixon was criminally underutilized in this regard. Especially given how proficient of a pass catcher he is.
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The new coaching staff will likely narrow the distribution of targets, focusing primarily around their workhorse back. The Rams were sixth lowest in the NFL in percent of targets to the tight end position last year while Cincinnati was middle of the pack at 19th. Of course, some of this will spread to the receivers, but it’s reasonable to envision a good portion of those targets being shifted to the running back. I expect Mixon’s usage to increase significantly in 2019. Zac Taylor’s system will improve Mixon’s passing production simply by giving him more opportunities, and there is no question he will make the most of them.
Gurley received 26 more targets last year if Mixon sees an increase of only half of that (13) he would likely secure about 55 (80%) receptions. He will be given the opportunity high caliber players need to finish a top-five fantasy running back. An increase in targets and receptions won’t get him there alone though. There will need to be an influx of rushing production.
Directional rushing production was a significant factor in the success of the L.A. Rams offense last year and an important element in Todd Gurley’s fantasy performance. Something that may be overlooked about the Rams rushing strategy is how often Gurley ran the ball to the edges and outside the offensive tackles. He would often run away from the guards and center, allowing him to use his athleticism in space instead of predictably rushing the ball up the middle into a wall of defenders.
This creates a disadvantage for the defense as they can’t simply stack the box with big defensive linemen and linebackers. If we examine NFL Next Gen Stats, it’s apparent in the “% of attempts vs. 8+ defenders in the box” statistics. Gurley only faced 8+ defenders in the box on 8.2% of his attempts compared to Mixon’s staggering 16.03%. If we dig into the numbers further, there is a stark difference between Mixon and Gurley’s directional successful rushing production which correlates to the 8+ men in the box statistic and on-field production. SharpFootballStats shows us Gurley took 119 attempts to the edge (at the offensive tackles) to Mixon’s 45, while Mixon rushed the ball up the middle and at the guards 93 times to Gurley’s 60.
This means Mixon had to face many more defenders at the line of scrimmage last year, something that should change immediately with the new coaching staff. Now, Taylor didn’t necessarily birth this rushing and O-line strategy, but it is certainly a tactic he may choose to adopt due to its undeniable success with a similar running back on his former team.
This isn’t just conjecture, of course, we know Gurley can be successful in this scheme, but can Mixon? Good thing we can look at some film. In this clip, the Bengals run Mixon wide to the edge. This allows him to use his vision to read the defense, find the holes, and use his athleticism to evade defenders.
Yes, this is one play, but there is plenty more film evidence out there proving how much more successful he can be when utilized this way. I’m not saying Mixon is Gurley, but they’re comparable. Mixon comes in at 6’1” 224 pounds and Gurley at 6’1” 220 pounds. Both are workhorse backs who carry between the tackles but have the speed to bounce it to the outside. Both averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year. 50% of Gurley’s rushing yards came after contact while 45.7% of Mixon’s rushing yards came after contact. This was Gurley’s fourth year in the league and only Mixon’s second so we can expect improvement this coming year. The point is he creates yards after contact at an elite level and those extra yards turn into fantasy points.
Quarterback and Skill Positions
Though rushing and receiving are the two main components in this formula, a change in coaching and the Bengals team makeup can’t be ignored. Cincinnati has similar skill players to the Rams, starting with three receivers who bring different skill sets but can all bust plays wide open in A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and John Ross. A strong running back in Joe Mixon and a quarterback in Andy Dalton who has proven he can be as effective as Jared Goff. Dalton had a better TD% (6.5%), and a higher QB rating (106.2) in 2015 than Goff (101.1) has had at any point in his career so far.
Greens return to the field signals better days for Mixon. With Green healthy, the Bengals were 5-3 last year, but only 1-7 after he departed. Mixon averaged eight more fantasy points per game in wins compared to loses, so, when the Bengals are down and chasing points Mixon is largely taken out of the game plan. It’s been reported Green is expected to be “100% for camp” meaning a promising outlook for Mixon’s fantasy production.
It’s also worth mentioning here the Bengals offensive line ranked 27th according to PFF. The team has at least tried to immediately address the issue by signing former NY Giant guard John Jerry, a decent NFL starter who will do what he can to improve the line. They also drafted a day one starter in Alabama star Jonah Williams but will have to wait until 2020 to see his impact due to a season-ending Labrum injury. If that isn’t enough, guard Alex Redmond has been suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. In response, the team signed an upgrade in former Buffalo Bill John Miller. He was better in every category per PFF.
— That Bengals Guy (@ThatBengalsGuy) March 16, 2019
Now with Clint Boling unexpectedly retiring, Cincinnati will look to 2018 rookie Christian Westerman to fill the void. As bad as it sounds, there is hope in youth. PFF graded his 96 snaps last year, and he managed an 80.0 run-blocking grade and an impressive 98.1 (18th among guards) in pass-blocking efficiency. 2019 is his time to shine. Cordy Glenn is healthy and back along with Billy Price for their second year in the Bengals system, and we can expect improvement from last year to help solidify the group.
Mixon averaged 2.20 yards before contact in 2018 indicating the big men up front were more helpful than they’re getting credit for. Nobody is expecting their line to go from 27th in the league to top five, or even the top 10. But the Bengals improved line and team makeup should allow Zac Taylor to implement an offensive design similar to his former team giving Mixon all the opportunity needed to become a top-five fantasy back.
Mixon was elite, even with an O-line ranked in the bottom half of the league he managed to rush for an impressive 1,168 yards and eight touchdowns. This also shows on film. The Bengals O-line gets very little push on this play, but Mixon uses his vision and power to find the room and create yards after contact.
He proved useful in the passing game as well adding 296 yards receiving and one touchdown finishing last year as the number 10 fantasy running back in PPR rankings in just 14 games. With the combination of talent, a new scheme, an increase in targets and rushing efficiency there’s little doubt Mixon can land himself in the top five.
Joe Mixon had a greater share of his team’s carries (77%) than Gurley (63%), yet Gurley still had 21 more total carries than Mixon and only played 14 games. Gurley received 256 carries this year and 20+ more the two years prior. Mixon totaled 237 in 2018. There is no reason to expect Mixon will receive anything less than 250 carries and it’s more likely he ends up in the 260-270 range. Cincinnati’s new offense will provide Mixon both the attempts and targets necessary to elevate him to a top-five fantasy running back.
The evidence suggests he can outperform guys who finished ahead of him in 2018 like James White, James Connor, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and even Saquan Barkley just because of how poor the Giants offense is sure to be this year. He should see a massive increase in work in 2019 due to a boost in targets and carries, a better rushing scheme, and total offensive overhaul to better utilize the skill players, especially the running back. With this kind of upside, he’s incredibly valuable going late first round, early second in drafts. I’m targeting him everywhere I can, and you should be too.
Thank you for reading. If you have any thoughts or would like to discuss, you can find me on Twitter @WillieBeamanDFF.