In 2020 the season began with promise for the Cincinnati Bengals but it didn’t end that way. Franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season in Week 10 and the Bengals limped to a 4-11-1 finish, the only team in the AFC North not to qualify for the playoffs. They also largely played without star running back Joe Mixon, who appeared in just six games thanks to a foot injury.
But hope springs eternal in the NFL, especially during the summer months. Burrow is on track to start the season and Mixon appears to be healthy and ready to go. With the Bengals moving on from long-time pass catching specialist Giovanni Bernard, who signed with the Buccaneers this off-season, Mixon could be poised for a huge workload. Will that be a boon to fantasy players?
The Bengals snagged Mixon in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and since his selection fantasy players have been excited about his prospects. But he’s seemingly always had to share touches in the backfield. As a rookie, the team employed both Jeremy Hill and Bernard in addition to Mixon. And for the last three years, Mixon has shared touches—especially on passing downs—with Bernard.
He’s also had to weather some tough offensive lines. Despite that, Mixon has shown flashes of being the bell cow many hoped. In his second season, Mixon turned 237 carries into 1,168 yards and eight touchdowns. He also added 43 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown. That was good enough for him to finish as RB10. The following season, Mixon rushed for 1,137 yards and five touchdowns, adding 35 receptions for 287 yards and three TDs. That saw him finish as RB13.
In 2020, Mixon’s health kept him off the field. Despite appearing in only six games, Mixon had 119 carries, second best on the team. He led the Bengals in rushing with 428 yards. Now healthy, with an improved offensive line, improved offense overall, and no real competition; Mixon seems poised to dominate again.
The Bengals let Bernard go, leaving them with an interesting collection of supporting backs. That includes Samajae Perine and Trevyon Williams, who helped carry the load in Mixon’s absence in 2020, and rookie Chris Evans. But it’s hard to see any of them as a threat to take touches away from a healthy Mixon.
Perine is the most veteran back, and produced the best in Mixon’s absence in 2020, rushing for 301 yards and three touchdowns on 63 carries. Perine was taken in the Fourth Round of the 2017 draft by Washington. As a rookie, he saw 175 carries and rushed for 603 yards and a touchdown, but he’s bounced around the NFL since then. While he’s a decent reserve option, he isn’t on Mixon’s level.
Williams also contributed in 2020, rushing for 157 yards on 26 carries. He was a sixth-round pick of the Bengals in 2019, but 2020 was the first time he got on the field. Evans was a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft, having rushed for 600-plus yards at Michigan in his first two seasons. But his last season of meaningful work was 2018 when he rushed for 423 yards in 10 games. After not playing in 2019, Evans saw 16 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in 2020. It makes him a bit of an unknown, though some think he could be Mixon’s primary backup.
Another unknown is rookie Pooka Williams, who was an undrafted signing by the Bengals. Williams had a great first two years at Kansas, rushing for 1,125 yards as a freshman and 1,061 yards as a sophomore. In his final season in 2020, Williams appeared in just four games and got just 51 carries, going for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He went undrafted but could be a wild card in the running back group for the Bengals.
There is plenty of reason to be excited about the 2021 Bengals. Burrow should be back, and he’s teamed with veteran receiver Tyler Boyd, second-year stand-out Tee Higgins, and rookie Ja’Marr Chase, his college teammate. That gives the Bengals a chance to have a robust passing game, provided the line holds up. And a healthy Mixon could give the team a robust running game, too.
The Bengals have some interesting options in the backfield that could be strong reserve options or complementary backs, but none of them should challenge Mixon. Mixon has shown the potential to be a franchise back, finishing in the Top 10 once and just outside the Top 12 in a second season. He’s shown he can carry the load and contribute as a receiver, and with Bernard in Tampa Bay, I think he’s the three-down man in Cincinnati. I still have questions about the line, but I think Mixon returns RB1 value again in 2021.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.