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Could Bengals RB Joe Mixon quickly win the starting job?

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals will begin OTAs soon, with several positions likely up for grabs. But does that include running back?

The top three running backs in 2017 will likely be Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon. Hill is entering a contract season and Bernard is coming off an ACL tear.

That means Mixon is entering a situation where he has a good chance to rise up the ranks quickly.

Don't expect Mixon to necessarily become the named starter this season, but expect him to get playing time as if he were a starter.

The reasons are varied.

Hill, entering his fourth season, received the bulk of the work last year, carrying the ball 222 times for 839 yards. Bernard, who played only 10 games because of his injury, carried the ball 91 times. He had more receiving work, catching 39 passes to Hill's 21.

Though Hill has been considered the workhorse, the Bengals' two most utilized offensive formations in 2016 actually had Bernard in the lineup.

The Bengals ran 185 offensive plays last season with two wide receivers, Bernard and either Tyler Eifert or C.J. Uzomah as the tight end. The three most successful combinations utilized Bernard. The combination of Bernard as the running back, Tyler Boyd, A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell as the receivers and either Uzomah, Tyler Kroft or Eifert at tight end resulted in 1,435 yards and seven touchdowns.

Hill dealt with some injuries and didn't have his best season, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. His rookie season remains his best statistical year: 1,124 yards and 5.1 yards per carry.

Hill's mediocre third season contributed to a mediocre year for the running backs as a group. The Bengals were looking to upgrade that position, hosting several running backs for visits during the draft season and displaying heavy interest in Leonard Fournette, who went to the Jaguars at No. 4 overall.

So what does that mean going forward?

If the Bengals were willing to invest a first-round pick in a running back, it's clearly open season at the position. They likely will utilize a running back-by-committee approach, giving carries to both Hill and Mixon while continuing to use Bernard in a pass-catching role.

However, Mixon's versatility could ultimately mean that he gets a significant number of snaps, ahead of both Hill and Bernard.

Mixon caught 37 passes for 538 yards during his final season at Oklahoma in addition to rushing for 1,274 yards. He was also used as a kick returner, running one back for a touchdown. And he threw a touchdown pass.

Mixon's college stats are similar to Bernard's, who rushed for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns in his final season at North Carolina. Mixon, at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, is bigger than the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard.

Hill rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season at LSU but was rarely used as a pass-catcher.

If Mixon is used in a manner that is similar to his work at Oklahoma, the Bengals would have a lot of options and could keep defenses honest. His biggest obstacle will be making the jump from college to the NFL.

That's no guarantee, but if he can pick things up quickly, he'll likely be used right away.

Hill has acknowledged that he needs to have a better season in 2017, but he also thinks Cincinnati's new backfield is one of the best in the league.

The Bengals likely feel the same way.