Can Joe Mixon lead way for Bengals in 2018?

There's been a passing of the torch in Cincinnati.

Jeremy Hill's goodbye tweet in January was a clear sign the running back is on the way out as he heads into free agency for the first time. Joe Mixon, who will head into his second season, will probably carry the load.

Considering that Hill only carried the ball 37 times for 116 yards in 2017, will that much really change in 2018? It certainly could.

There were a number of reasons the Bengals got off to a bad start and never recovered as they ended the season last in yards per game. One was Ken Zampese's offense; he was never able to replicate what his predecessor Hue Jackson did, and a disastrous start led to his ousting just two weeks into the season.

The Bengals' offensive line was another -- the unit struggled without Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. A rash of injuries didn't help. Only two linemen (Clint Boling and Russell Bodine), played all 16 games, and the other positions were somewhat of a revolving door all year.

It didn't help that the Bengals lacked consistency early in the season. They tried to juggle three running backs between Hill, Mixon and Giovani Bernard. The insistence on putting Hill in the game for only the first series of each half didn't make sense. For Mixon's development to really take off, he needed to get the bulk of the carries without Hill around.

The question now is, can Mixon improve enough to be the lead running back?

The Bengals probably won't -- and shouldn't -- shy away from the two-back system with Bernard, who was woefully underused early in the season. The Bengals have the ability to get creative with the pass-catching ability between the two backs, which didn't work nearly as well when they were trying to spread the ball between three players.

Mixon certainly had his share of rookie mistakes, and at times he averaged less than 3 yards per carry. He also frustrated Bengals coach Marvin Lewis when he publicly said he should have gotten more carries in the first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mixon was averaging 6.86 yards per carry in the first half of the game, but the Bengals went away from the run in the second and he finished with only seven carries. Lewis said later that Mixon should show more maturity.

Even with 2017's speed bumps, it's clear that Mixon, who will turn 22 next season, has shown he has the potential to take great strides next season. With a full year under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, the Bengals might able to get off to a more stable start.

If the Bengals can figure out how to use Mixon and Bernard effectively from the start, they could have a formidable tandem in the run game.