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

Joe Mixon averaged 4.9 yards per carry on his way to 1,168 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground last season. David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Mixon currently has an ADP of 19.3, making him a late second-round draft pick in most ESPN fantasy leagues. On average, nine running backs, seven wide receivers and a tight end are going before him with a quarterback also sporting an almost identical ADP of 19.6.

This just shouldn't happen.

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.

Scheme

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.

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.

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.

Health

The Bengals finished last season 26th in the NFL in total yards and 17th in points per game, but the lack of offense can be traced directly to their myriad injuries. Quarterback Andy Dalton played 10 full games last season before succumbing to injury, and the team averaged 25.6 PPG and 329.3 total yards/game in full outings with him running the show.

Star wideout A.J. Green played the first eight games before injury struck. In the eight games with both Dalton and Green, the Bengals averaged 27.6 PPG and 344.3 total yards/game.

Injury-prone tight end Tyler Eifert got injured in the fourth game last season, but in the four games that all three played in, the Bengals averaged 31.5 ppg and 376.5 yards/game.

On the other side of the coin, the Bengals averaged only 18.4 PPG and 261.4 yards/game in the five games to end the season in which none of these three played.

While health is not guaranteed this season either, the Bengals have taken steps to mitigate their injury risk. They traded up to the top of the fourth round in the NFL draft to bring in Ryan Finley to compete for backup quarterback after incumbent backup Jeff Driskel struggled a season ago. Wideout Tyler Boyd is coming off a breakout season, and 2017 first-rounder John Ross has shown signs of continued improvement as well, making the offense less reliant on A.J. Green than in seasons past. And the Bengals also spent a second-round pick on tight end Drew Sample, widely regarded as the best blocking tight end in the class and someone who could be called on if Eifert goes down again.

A healthy Bengals unit showed last season that it can put points on the board, and the more scoring opportunities available the better for Mixon's scoring potential this season. The Bengals' skill player starters are currently healthy, and the team is better situated than last season to survive injuries.

Scoring ability

The main area where Gurley separated himself from the pack the last two seasons has been his ability to get in the end zone. Gurley led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns last season, while Mixon tied for 11th with eight. However, when comparing scoring efficiency in the red zone, Mixon again matched Gurley, with both scoring 0.25 touchdowns per attempt. The difference, then, is that Gurley got a lot more red zone carries (68, versus 32 for Mixon) against lighter fronts.

As mentioned above, the Bengals' offensive scheme this season looks set to allow Mixon to work smarter, not harder, with more lanes into advantageous situations. Also, the Bengals demonstrated last season that they could score when healthy, as the 27.6 PPG that they averaged in the eight games that both Dalton and Green played would have translated to the fourth-highest scoring average in the NFL.

Conclusion

Mixon is poised to explode this season. He is coming off an impressive second NFL season, and at 22 years old is still improving. He is set to play in a smarter offensive set this season, utilizing elements of the Rams scheme that have proved so successful for Gurley in the last couple of seasons. The Bengals' skill players start the season healthy, and the team has the ability to put points on the board at rates that should afford Mixon plenty of scoring chances. Mixon is an every-down back, with 73 catches in the last two seasons, numbers that are also likely to increase in the Rams-like scheme that saw Gurley catch 59 passes last season alone.

Mixon finished last season eighth among returning running backs in fantasy points per game (PPR), but even incremental improvements in the areas mentioned here would have been enough to move his average into the top five. The expectation is that he will make those types of improvements this season, and thus finish as one of the top fantasy backs in the NFL.