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The Great Debate: Joe Mixon (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 13, 2021
Joe Mixon

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

Up next, we have Matt Barbato and Derek Lofland debating Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon.

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The Debate

While it wasn’t always pretty, Joe Mixon was the RB9 in half-PPR through the first six weeks of the season before a foot injury suffered in Week 6 ultimately ended his season. I understand if people have Mixon fatigue. But I’ve got plenty of reasons to go back to the well one more time.

Let’s start with what matters most: talent. Mixon possesses great speed and athleticism and vision and cutting abilities that are reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell in his prime. Simply put, Mixon is a damn good running back. But his ceiling has been capped by a miserable offensive line and incompetent quarterback play.

That leads me to my second point: The Cincinnati Bengals could actually have a good offense! Joe Burrow showed enough in his injury-shortened rookie year that has me believing in him as a franchise QB. The Bengals also have plenty of exciting pass catchers in Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and rookie Ja’Marr Chase. Finally, opponents won’t be able to focus entirely on stopping Mixon. The offensive line is also improved. Left tackle Jonah Williams had a good 2020 season, the addition of Riley Reiff should be an upgrade at right tackle, and I’m hopeful second-round pick Jackson Carman will be an upgrade at right tackle.

Finally, let’s talk about Mixon’s workload. It could be massive if he plays a full season. Giovani Bernard is gone, leaving Samaje Perine (barf) and Trayveon Williams as Cincinnati’s primary backups. Mixon could see a ton of volume this season, which certainly helps.

Mixon’s talent, an enormous opportunity for touches, and the improvement around him in Cincinnati have me believing that this is the year he hits his ceiling.

After this offseason, the one thing to love about Joe Mixon is that Giovani Bernard is gone, and the backup is now Samaje Perine. That means Mixon should have a role in both rushing and passing situations, and he has the potential to see more work than in previous seasons. However, I have several concerns about him being ranked as the RB12 in fantasy football. The first is that I am not sure that Bernard leaving will lead to a significant uptick in work. In 2019, both Mixon and Bernard were on the roster, and Mixon had 313 touches to Bernard’s 83 touches. The only reason Bernard saw an uptick in touches to 171 last year is that Mixon missed 10 games with an injury. It had nothing to do with the coaching staff being torn between two quality running backs.

That leads to my second issue with Mixon being ranked as a low-end RB1. There are durability concerns. Mixon played only six games last year due to a foot injury, and in 2019 he dealt with calf and ankle injuries. Mixon is only 25-years old, but he already seems to be a player that is consistently dealing with injuries, despite having only 812 carries. I do not trust him to stay healthy for a full 17-game season.

The third issue is the offensive line. While there is no denying that the offensive line is improved with the addition of Riley Reiff, it only caused them to rise from the 30th ranked offensive line to the 24th ranked offensive line courtesy of Pro Football Focus. The decision to pass on Penei Sewell and go with Ja’Marr Chase with the seventh pick hurt their rebuilding effort along the offensive line, which is a big blow for Mixon’s fantasy value. He will likely have to fight for every yard running behind one of the weaker offensive lines in the league.

Finally, Mixon has had some terrible games the last two years playing behind bad offensive lines. He had six games in 2019 where he averaged less than 2.40 yards per attempt and only four games where he averaged more than 5.00 yards per attempt. Last year he had four games where he averaged less than 3.00 yards per attempt and only one game where he averaged more than 5.00 yards per game. In his four years in the league, he has averaged more than 5.0 yards per touch only one time, which was 5.2 yards back in 2018.

When I look for a bell-cow back in fantasy football, I want a high floor, and I want a durable player. Mixon is not very durable, and he has six games in his career where he has had double-digit carries and finished with less than 30 yards. Mixon has not shown that the Bengals can give him the ball 20 times and have him control a game for an entire season. He showed flashes of being that player at the end of the 2019 season, but to project that type of production for the 2021 season requires one to dismiss the beginning of the 2019 season and the 10 missed games last year. I see a player being ranked above his ceiling with nothing built-in for injury and a subpar offensive line.

Let’s start with the workload argument. Yes, Bernard wasn’t a huge factor in the backfield when Mixon was healthy and active. But I suspect his workload will only grow with his departure, as the backups behind him are much less talented and less accomplished. Mixon was already a rare featured back in today’s NFL, and I think his role will only grow within the offense. As far as injuries, we saw just last season that even the great tailbacks like Christian McCaffrey are susceptible to injuries. It’s just the nature of the position and, unfortunately, a risk you take with any running back.

I agree with you on the decision to take Chase over Sewell. It felt like a decision that mainly catered to Burrow, which is fine. However, adding a dynamic playmaker in your passing game can have a trickle-down effect on the running game. And that brings me to your point about his history of terrible games.

For his entire career, Mixon has been plagued by bad offensive line play and awful quarterback play. Before Burrow came along, the quarterbacks alongside him have been Andy Dalton, Jeff Driskel, and Ryan Finley. Cincinnati’s passing offense has ranked 27th, 24th, 19th, and 27th in Mixon’s four seasons. The Bengals’ passing game hasn’t been a threat since Mixon’s career began, resulting in loaded boxes and opponents who made stopping him their top priority. I expect that to change in 2021 with Burrow in his second season and a strong trio of pass-catchers. The Bengals should throw the ball effectively, resulting in lighter boxes and better running lanes.

I also think Mixon’s floor is actually much higher. In 2018 and 2019, Mixon finished ninth and 13th among running backs in half-PPR formats, despite so much going against him. With better pieces around him, I think this is the year Mixon finally starts to reach his ceiling.

One of the myths of fantasy football is that a strong passing game leads to a strong running game because teams have to stop the pass, creating running lanes for running backs. Last year, the Top-5 passing offenses were the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, and Atlanta Falcons. Those teams ranked 16th, 28th, 20th, 31st, and 27th in rushing yards gained. The only NFL offense in the Top-10 in both passing offense and rushing offense was the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were ninth in passing yards gained and eighth in rushing yards gained last year.

It does help to have a strong passing game to balance out the offense and help the running game, but it is not necessary. Adrian Peterson gained 2,097 yards rushing with Christian Ponder at quarterback in 2011. Chris Johnson gained 2,006 rushing yards with Kerry Collins and Vince Young at quarterback. Jamal Lewis gained 2,066 rushing yards in 2003 with Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright at quarterback.

I do not think the main reason that Mixon has struggled is due to the quarterback situation. The more important factors in maintaining a strong rushing offense are a great offensive line and a great defense. A great offensive line opens lanes for the running back, and a great defense keeps the score close and keeps the offense in running situations for the entire game. A great passing offense can help take defenders out of the box, but without the strong offensive line and defense, you have rushing results like the Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Texans did last year, despite their strong passing offenses.

The Bengals have neither a strong offensive line nor a strong defense in place. Pro Football Focus still ranks this line as the 24th ranked offensive line, which is an improvement from 30th last year but still a well below-average offensive line. The Bengals were 22nd in points allowed and 26th in yards allowed last year, and their first draft pick addressing defense was Joseph Ossai with the 69th pick. Their best free-agent signing was Trey Hendrickson. While this defense may be improved this year with their offseason additions, it hardly feels like a defense destined to be in the Top-10 in yards allowed or points allowed.

Finally, there is no disputing Mixon’s strong 2018 season. He was terrific that year. His 2019 season was not very good, even though he did end up 13th among fantasy backs. Mixon did not have his first 100-yard game until Week 9 and his first rushing touchdown until Week 10. He had 43.45 percent of his rushing production and 37.5 percent of his touchdowns scored in the last four weeks of the season. For fantasy owners that drafted him as an RB1 that year, they had to deal with Mixon being the 32nd ranked running back for the first eight games, including four games with 17 yards rushing or less.

That carried into 2020. He struggled against everyone on his schedule not named Jacksonville. He was the 38th ranked fantasy back headed into that Week 4 Jacksonville game, and if you take out the 39.1 fantasy points he scored that week, he had only 50 fantasy points in the remaining five games. To put that in perspective, Adrian Peterson had 47.9 fantasy points in five games, and he was the 34th ranked running back for the first 6 weeks of the season.

I want my RB1s to have both high ceilings and high floors. Mixon has a high ceiling evidenced by his 2018 season and some of the good games he had in 2019 and 2020, but he has too low of a floor across too many games and not enough improvements to the offensive line and defense for me to be excited about him in 2021. When you factor in the injuries he had in 2020, he is too risky for me at his current ADP.

The Analysts

Over the final nine games of 2019, Zac Taylor gave Mixon 214 touches (23.8 per game), which made us believe they’d finally realized he should be used in a workhorse fashion. The start of 2020 wasn’t as generous, but he did average 19.7 touches per game over the first three weeks. Then we saw Giovani Bernard get knocked out of the lineup for a few weeks, and it led to Mixon totaling 27.0 touches per game over the next three weeks before getting hurt. Now that Bernard is gone, are we finally going to get a full season’s worth of 20-plus touch games for Mixon? If so, top-five is in the realm of possibilities, especially knowing he’ll be more involved in the passing game. Don’t sleep on Mixon; he’s still a top-10 running back talent-wise.
– Mike Tagliere

Did you know that Joe Mixon has actually played more games than Dalvin Cook since they both came into the league in 2017? Yet somehow, Mixon gets labeled as an injury risk every single season, and Cook is being drafted as a top-3 pick this year. While Cook’s production when he’s on the field is certainly worthy of a top-3 pick, it goes to show the recency bias that comes into play for fantasy managers when they’re on the clock. When Mixon is on the field, he’s going to receive one of the heaviest workloads in the entire league. He’s one of the most talented RBs in the league, and this offense is set to take a major jump in 2021 with Joe Burrow and his surfeit of receiving weapons. If Mixon had been shut down immediately last season and put on IR when his injury occurred, we wouldn’t have this perception in our minds of him as a huge injury risk. However, because of Zac Taylor’s inconsistent commitment to Mixon returning to the lineup last year, fantasy managers have a bad taste in their mouths. Get some mouthwash, clean out that taste, and draft Mixon at a major discount this year. The production’s going to be too good to pass up. My Very Early Projection: 298-1193-9 rushing & 61-459-2 receiving.
– Kyle Yates

It’s easy to understand people being frustrated with Joe Mixon in 2020, but once Joe Burrow was done, there was no reason to push him back onto the field after his injury. The Bengals invested heavily in Joe Mixon last off-season, and there are no challengers to his position in the offense. He also had back-to-back 1K-yard rushing seasons before 2020’s disappointment. Having faith and buying back into Mixon for ’21 is a good idea and will be rewarded.
– Joe Pisapia

The Public

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