CINCINNATI -- Last season should have answered any questions about Joe Mixon’s ability to be one of the NFL’s best running backs.
His fifth season with the Cincinnati Bengals was his best to date. Mixon was one of the most productive players at this position, earned his first Pro Bowl selection and even threw a touchdown pass in the Bengals’ first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years.
Yet the lingering question about Mixon’s capability as an all-purpose back still remains. Ever since he dazzled catching passes during his college days at Oklahoma, his status as a receiver has been a hot topic among fans and especially fantasy football managers.
But the numbers from Mixon’s 2021 season and comments from Bengals coach Zac Taylor suggest the question has already been answered.
“To make a statement that we can get more out of Joe [Mixon] in the passing game, that's got to pull from somewhere,” Taylor said on May 31 following an offseason workout. “Then we'll be talking about why there wasn't as much production from Ja'Marr [Chase] or Tee [Higgins].”
Taylor hints at the conundrum the Bengals happily put themselves in when they drafted the two wide receivers in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Between them, veteran wide receiver Tyler Boyd and recently-departed tight end C.J. Uzomah, finding the right balance for ball distribution was going to be challenging.
In 2021, Cincinnati aced it. Chase set the franchise record for receiving yards in a single season (1,455) and was named the Associated Press NFL Rookie of the Year. Higgins cleared the 1,000-yard mark, too. Uzomah posted a career year that earned him a three-year, $24 million contract from the New York Jets.
Mixon was more productive than all of them.
He rushed for a career-high 1,205 yards, the third-highest in the NFL last season. Tack on his totals from the passing game and Mixon finished the year with 1,519 yards from scrimmage and 16 total offensive touchdowns, putting him fourth among all NFL running backs in each respective category.
But the bulk of that damage was done on the ground. He ranked 18th among running backs in receiving yards and 25th in total targets.
Being on the field in more passing situations, specifically on third downs, could increase Mixon’s potential target share. But Mixon’s current usage makes that a tricky situation.
Last season, Mixon was on the field for 64% of Cincinnati's total team snaps, which was the fourth-highest among all running backs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And the large majority of those snaps came during a fresh set of downs.
Mixon was on the field for 75% of the team’s first and second downs while Samaje Perine, the team’s second-string running back, had a 16% snap share in those circumstances. But on third downs of three or more yards, those numbers flipped. Perine received 64% of the snaps while Mixon’s share dropped to 17%.
After the 2020 season, the coaching staff challenged Mixon to improve in his pass protection after the Bengals released veteran Giovani Bernard. Even though Mixon made strides in that area, Perine effectively took over for Bernard in most passing situations, including 2-minute drills.
“If we’re going to take [Mixon] out on a down, I rather take him out on third down so he’s good for first and second down, ultimately,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.
The current structure leaves Mixon off the field in some potential high-leverage situations, such as a key third-and-1 late in Super Bowl LVI where Perine was stopped for no gain. Callahan seemed to suggest there was room for some flexibility in ’22 that allows for Mixon to see more third-down snaps while balancing his overall workload.
“You’re never going to have him take that many snaps, especially if you want to keep him fresh over the course of the season,” Callahan said. “But at the end of the day, I’d like to see maybe a little bit more usage for him on third down.”
Mixon's thoughts on the topic are unclear. He did not speak to reporters following Super Bowl LVI and did not hold any press conferences during the team’s offseason workouts.
But Mixon’s body of work during the first five years of his career speaks volumes. Last year’s numbers provided strong early returns on the four-year, $48 million contract extension he signed in 2020. And he’s fit into an offense that could be poised for a big season in 2022.