Posted June 10, 2017
The Current State of the Cincinnati Bengals Backfield
The Bengals depth chart currently has three running backs that could potentially see extended work in the 2017 season. Two of these running backs, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, shared the backfield last year. The other, Joe Mixon, is a second round rookie, drafted 48 overall. While Cincinnati does not boast a good offensive line, the running back in their offense has traditionally been valuable. Running backs under Marvin Lewis have rushed the ball over 440 times each of the last four seasons. Only one other team over that span has as many rushing attempts. This leaves the potential for an immense workload in this offense, but with three capable backs on the roster there is a question of who is going to get a majority of this work.
A Look Into the Run Game
First, lets look at the 2016 season and see what Hill and Bernard did in the run game. In 2016 the Bengals used three backs. Jeremy Hill led the team in carries with 222, but averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Bernard, who tore his ACL in week 10, carried the ball 91 times and averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. After the Bernard injury, Rex Burkhead emerged, carrying the ball 74 times for 4.6 yards per carry. Rex Burkhead is now a New England Patriot, leaving Jeremy Hill and the injured Giovani Bernard on the roster. This opens a potential role for a new running back to dominate carries. Enter Joe Mixon. A first round talent, who slipped due to character issues, Mixon dominated the Big 12 at Oklahoma. As a runner, he averaged a missed tackle every 3.9 touches and averaged 6.8 yards per carry in 2016. He also provides an explosive element in the running game, which the Bengals lacked. Fifty-seven percent of his yards came on runs of 15 yards or greater in college. Jeremy Hill never registered a carry over 15 yards in 2016 and Giovani Bernard had just one. This influx of talent is exactly what the Cincinnati running game needs on early downs.
Passing Game Work
Second, another question for Cincinnati is who will catch the passes? In 2016 Giovani Bernard worked as the main passing down back, catching 39 passes on 51 targets. Hill also got some work, catching 21 passes on 27 targets. Following the Bernard injury Burkhead also caught 17 passes on 20 targets. The Bengals clearly like to throw to their running back, but Burkhead is no longer with the team and Giovani is sidelined with injury. Again, enter Joe Mixon. In 2016 he led the NCAA in yards per route run with 2.83. Additionally, as a pass blocker he also allowed one QB pressure on 48 attempts. This shows he can be relied upon out of the backfield as a receiver and as a blocker. Not only did Mixon excel as a pass catcher out of the backfield, but he also lined up in the slot or as an outside wide receiver on numerous occasions. This should allow Cincinnati to disguise play calling a bit, with Mixon being able to stay on the field during passing situations.
Red Zone Work
Finally, lets look at valuable red zone touches. In 2016 Hill led the team with 48 carries inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Bernard and Burkhead only carried it 13 and 14 times respectively. Although he had more attempts, Hill was not efficient with his opportunity in the red zone. Only 23 (48 percent) of his carries from inside the 10-yard line resulted in a touchdown or a 1st down. Towards the end of the year Hill started to see his goal line usage decline as Burkhead emerged. Burkhead’s first red zone carry did not come until week 14, but in week 15 he had five red zone carries and in week 17 he had eight. He was also successful on 64% of these carries, with 9 going for a 1st down or a touchdown. His departure and Hill’s struggles open a role for a red zone running back. Joe Mixon should be more than capable of handling this role. At 227 pounds with 4.5 speed he has a better size adjusted speed score than Hill, who weighed 236 and ran a 4.66 forty. This big back profile should allow him to stay on the field during these valuable situations.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is Joe Mixon is the running back you want to own in Cincinnati. Last season Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard were inefficient in the run game. Bernard excelled catching passes out of the backfield, but he is currently on the shelf. This opportunity should allow Mixon to be a three down back sooner rather than later. His production in the run game and versatility in the pass game should ensure he stays on the field for all three downs. Additionally, his size will help him in short yardage and goal line situations. Currently being drafted in the 3rd or 4th round, Mixon has immense upside as a potential workhorse running back in 2017. A role similar to David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell is not outside his range of outcomes and that is why you should draft him with comfort at his current ADP.