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The case for Joe Mixon as a top-5 running back in 2019

At only 22 years old, preparing for his third season in the league, Mixon looks poised to have a breakout season — again. Mixon already broke out last season, improving from 913 total yards and four touchdowns with three fumbles (two lost) in 14 games as a rookie to 1,464 yards and nine touchdowns with zero fumbles in 14 games as a second-year pro. Mixon led the AFC in rushing last season, despite playing for a Bengals team that lost nine of its final 11 games to finish last in its division after getting wrecked by a team-record number of injuries. There are several reasons to expect Mixon’s production to continue to improve in leaps and bounds this season.

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The Bengals parted ways with longtime head coach Marvin Lewis this offseason, and replaced him with Zac Taylor. Taylor joined the Bengals after spending the last two seasons as an assistant coach under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor is on record that he is using the Rams offense as “the starting point” for the Bengals’ new playbook. The Rams operated the majority of the time in 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) so that everything looks the same pre-snap, but the route combinations and alignments offer a lot of variability in what the offense can run. This is designed to open up options in both the run and the pass game that put the defense off-balance and give the offense mismatches to work with.5

These types of differences in scheme are key to setting Mixon’s expectations this season, especially in comparison to what we’ve seen from Rams running back Todd Gurley II for the last two seasons. Gurley has been by far the top fantasy back during that stretch, and finished third among running backs in fantasy points in PPR leagues last season despite missing the final two games of the season and playing limited minutes in the two games before that due to a knee injury. Last season, both Gurley and Mixon averaged an identical 4.9 yards per carry, but a closer look at their advanced numbers (utilizing NFL.com’s NextGenStats and playerprofiler.com metrics) indicates that Gurley typically faced more advantageous situations, while Mixon tended to do a bit more with his opportunities in 2018.nike nfl jerseys cheap china

Mixon faced at least eight defenders in the box 16.0% of the time, almost twice as often as Gurley (8.2%). Both Gurley and Mixon spent 2.8 seconds behind the line of scrimmage on average, but Mixon created 1.6 yards per carry after evading the first tackle while Gurley created only 1.2 yards per carry. Mixon also produced carries of 15 or more yards 42.4% more frequently per carry last season than did Gurley, displaying more explosiveness while creating more breakaway runs.

Early observations from Bengals camp indicate that the Bengals are displaying more pre-snap movements and practicing plays like the jet sweep, both of which are identifiable hallmarks of the Rams offense. Scheming to give Mixon more advantageous matchups and running lanes should really improve his outlook this season as he’s already proven the ability to create consistently on his own.