With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at whether the Cincinnati Bengals’ highly touted second-year running back will break out in Year 2.

Joe Mixon has become somewhat of a polarizing figure. Many fantasy owners drafted Mixon last season with hopeful expectation of rookie success, only to be frustrated with his inconsistency. This offseason, however, prevailing sentiment on Mixon seems to have shifted. He’s being touted by many as a sophomore breakout candidate, and his ADP is shooting upward.

Is the Mixon hype legit, or should you pass on him in 2018 fantasy drafts?

Mixon Entered the League as a Highly Touted Prospect …

After Mixon’s disappointing 2017 campaign, you may have forgotten what made Mixon such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. Many scouts regarded Mixon as the top running back prospect coming out of college in 2017 before his domestic assault incident at the University of Oklahoma.

Mixon has elite physical tools. He’s 6-foot-1 — tall for a running back — and 230 pounds, and despite his larger frame, he still ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He also boasted a 6.8 yards per carry average at Oklahoma, and he was a prolific pass catcher out of the backfield.

How prolific a receiving threat was he, exactly? Check out how his two seasons at Oklahoma compare to some other notable receiving backs in the NFL:

Mixon’s most favorable player comps coming out of college were Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. He has the frame of a power running back, with the receiving acumen to warrant a full three-down workload.

… So What Went Wrong in Year 1?

In 16 games last year, Mixon averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. He topped 62 rushing yards in just two games all season: 114 yards on 23 carries in Week 12 vs. Cleveland and 96 yards on 18 carries in Week 17 against Baltimore. He received less than 12 carries in seven games and finished the season with just 626 rushing yards, only 23 yards more than Samaje Perine. Ouch.

Some of the blame for this statistical mediocrity falls on Mixon’s shoulders, but there’s also plenty of blame to go around as well. The two main issues were:

  • Offensive line struggles
  • Bill Lazor’s fickle play calling

Cincinnati’s offensive line was abysmal in 2017. According to Football Outsiders, it ranked just 24th in Adjusted Line Yards (which weights running-back carries according to offensive line responsibility). Recognizing this deficiency, the Bengals aptly selected center Billy Price in the first round of the draft and added tackle Cordy Glenn in a trade with the Bills. Despite those additions, Pro Football Focus still ranks the Bengals’ O-line No. 26 in the NFL. If we assume that poor offensive line play likely hampered Mixon in 2017, it’s hard to make an argument his offensive line will improve markedly in 2018, which could cap Mixon’s ceiling.

Bill Lazor was promoted to offensive coordinator and play-caller in Week 3 of last season following the firing of Ken Zampese. He promptly promoted Mixon to lead back, but his failure to ever fully commit to the running game limited Mixon’s touches and was a source of frustration for Bengals fans and fantasy owners alike.

That said, if you inherited the offensive line that Lazor did, you might not be so inclined to pound the rock, either.

The problem is that Lazor sort of has a track record of this. Among current NFL offensive play-callers, Bill Lazor ranks dead last in rush attempts among top 50th percentile fantasy running backs over the last six years, and he also ranks dead last in total backfield opportunities per season. Those metrics don’t bode well for Mixon’s production in 2018.

However, there is a silver lining: Despite Lazor’s underutilization of the running game, he does prefer use a workhorse rather than employing committees and has often used a dedicated lead back for goal-line carries as well. For example, when Lazor was the offensive coordinator of the Dolphins in 2014 and 2015, Lamar Miller had eight rushing touchdowns each season. Given that Mixon only scored four last season, he may be in for some positive regression.

2018 Outlook

In 2017, Mixon turned 208 touches into 913 total yards and four touchdowns in 16 games played. However, while just how much better the offensive line (and Lazor’s play calling) is remains to be seen, the Bengals didn’t immediately elevate him into the featured role that he’s expected to have to start 2018, so let’s create an ideal case for Mixon’s 2018 production — one that is aggressive but still reasonable given current public sentiment. Let’s say Mixon earns around 240 carries and 45 receptions, gains 1,200 yards from scrimmage, and scores six total touchdowns. That kind of stat line would represent a marked improvement; had Mixon performed that well in 2017, it would have been good enough for a RB14 finish in both standard and PPR formats.

Here’s the big reveal: the stat line I chose for Mixon’s improvement is nearly exactly the same stat total that Miller produced in 2017 running behind the Texans’ 20th-ranked offensive line.

Mixon has upside, but everywhere he’s great, the Bengals also find a way to cap his potential:

  • Mixon has excellent physical tools, but his physicality is stymied by his sub-par offensive line.
  • Mixon serves as a great goal-line option in the Bengals offense, but do we really believe the Bengals offense has enough juice to get him into the red zone with regularity?
  • Mixon had prolific college averages per touch, but Lazor has a track record of denying running backs a large amount of opportunities.
  • Mixon proved himself in college to be a huge receiving threat, but he shares a backfield with Giovani Bernard. As long as Bernard maintains his role in the Bengals offense, Mixon will likely never have the opportunity to blossom into the three-down back he’s built to be.

Many are lauding Mixon as a breakout candidate in 2018, and listen, I get it. The guy could be great. The problem is that very few people are appropriately tempering expectations given his downside.

There should be hype surrounding Mixon, but let’s make sure not to get caught up and end up overhyping him. Yes, sophomore breakouts at the position are a thing (see: Melvin Gordon, Jay Ajayi). But they’re also not a thing sometimes (see: Montee Ball, Bishop Sankey, Thomas Rawls).

Given the massive drop-off between the RB1 and RB2 tiers this year, I understand the temptation to reach for Mixon early. Nonetheless, Mixon is best viewed as a mid-range RB2 with upside for more, not a fringe RB1. Look to target Mixon as such and try let him fall to you rather than reaching.

Pictured above: Joe Mixon
Credit: Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports