Bengals Mailbag: Should Joe Mixon get a new contract in 2020?

    In this edition of the Bengals Mailbag, Cole Thompson examines Joe Mixon and his looming contract extension heading into 2020.

    Although the Cincinnati Bengals have the potential to impress, their roster is filled with holes. Joe Burrow won’t be granted any favors playing behind an offensive line that is less than stellar, with unknowns right across the group. With those concerns for the passing game, the pressure could be on the franchise to extend play-making running back Joe Mixon to a new contract in 2020. 

    With open practice to the media beginning Monday, fans took to social media to get a glimpse of the first overall pick in Burrow. The reigning Heisman winner looked the part of a veteran early, taking control of the offense and commanding respect from the first-team unit inside the huddle. Star receiver A.J. Green returned to action for the first time in over a year, leading to speculation of his role as the team’s bonafide top target. 

    Another week of training camp is slowly winding down, so let’s do another “Bengal Bag” and answer some questions from “Who Dey” nation. 

    Should the Bengals extend Joe Mixon before the end of 2020?

    If you ask most people around the league, the answer is simple; you don’t pay running backs anymore. Despite being one of the factors to a top-gear offense, the position is easily replaceable, with one-year wonders making their way into the top 10 conversations. It’s no longer a position where just because you carry the load you are assured a hefty contract when negotiation time rolls around. 

    Mixon is one of seven running backs to surpass the 1,00-yard marker twice since 2018. During that span, he’s averaged 4.5 yards per carry, tallied 2,888 total yards of offense with 17 combined touchdowns. He also has earned the trust of head coach Zac Taylor with production as he’s yet to fumble a carry since his rookie season. 

    Mixon has struggled for consistency in the Bengals offense

    Is he the most productive Bengal in recent years? Yes. That’s also a problem as his stat line saw a dip during the process. Midway through 2019, he entered a slump and was ineffective as a runner and pass-catcher. While he managed to salvage a quality year three with his hands, the rushing attack diminished to an all-time low towards the final eight games last year. 

    Mixon is still a solidified premier running back despite his Offensive Share Metric (OSM) score coming in at 9.11. Senior Analyst Matt Williamson ranked him as the eighth-best runner entering 2020, and I was bold enough to say in Cincinnati’s offense, his value could be as high as sixth. However, with recent running backs failing to live up to contracts or playing poorly in negotiation years, extending Mixon before free agency is too risky.

    The Bengals will also be in contract talks with Green, who could be poised for a fully healthy re-breakout year. With a plethora of running backs entering free agency next season, including Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Kenyan Drake, Kareem Hunt, and Phillip Lindsay, Cincinnati could extend their long-time No.1 target while approaching a running back by committee approach with one of the lesser runners. Plus, second-year back Trayveon Williams might impress, thus diminishing Mixon’s value. 

    There are too many holes Cincinnati must fill instead of having the luxury to sign a potential bust running back. Mixon’s talents are worth top dollar, but his production will need to explode for that to happen. I could see him returning on the franchise tag, perhaps if he produces similar to that of Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, but that is likely the best chance of him returning as of now.

    Mixon will be a hot commodity in free agency — it just might end with him leaving the Jungle.

    Who steps up for the injured Trae Waynes?

    After giving the former Minnesota Vikings defender a three-year, $42 million deal this offseason, Cincinnati will be without their No.2 defender for most, if not all of 2020. 

    William Jackson suffered a similar injury that kept him out all of his rookie season in 2017. With little money remaining with which to spend in the free-agent market, Cincinnati will have to work from within to find their outside option for the upcoming season. Mackensie Alexander is too valuable in the nickel position, so look for Winston Rose and Darius Phillips to battle it out over the next several weeks. 

    Phillips took a promising step forward last season by leading the team in interceptions with four. He excelled from the slot, but his frame might force him to play outside in 2020. Rose, a star from the CFL league, tallied a league-high 14 interceptions from 2018-19. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been impressed with the production the 26-year-old has shown thus far. 

    “Don’t sleep on Winston Rose,” Anarumo said earlier this month. “Those guys are guys that have been successful. Winston up in Canada, having all those interceptions the last couple of years.”

    This will be one battle to watch for down the stretch entering September.

    Can Tyler Boyd still be the team’s No.1 target?

    At this point, I’d be shocked if he wasn’t. With John Ross still not on the field and Green returning from injury, Boyd could be the Bengals’ only reliable option in the passing game. More importantly, Boyd plays a role that will fit what Burrow likes. 

    Last season in Baton Rouge, the rookie quarterback’s favorite target was Justin Jefferson. Jefferson, now with the Vikings, predominately found most of his success coming from the slot. Thanks to the connection, Jefferson led the Tigers with 111 catches to go along with 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. 

    Boyd’s last two seasons have him emerging as one of the league’s top slot options. Since 2018, the 25-year-old has a combined 166 catches, 2,074 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Burrow loves to target inside and allow his receivers to make plays on their own, leading to more catches early on while the other receivers can get back to full form. 

    Early success from the new Tiger tandem should keep Boyd as the team’s No.1 option. While Green, Ross, and rookie Tee Higgins should complement the young quarterback, it’ll be the two-time 1,000-yard receiver that makes Burrow a star. 

    Which pass rusher should explode in 2020?

    I’m still not ready to give up on Carl Lawson. When healthy, this might be one of the top players on the Bengals’ roster, and perhaps one of the more underrated pass rushers in the NFL. That’s his problem; his health. 

    In the past two seasons, Lawson missed 13 games due to injury. It’s no surprise that it’s a trait that followed him to the NFL from Auburn, as he missed six games in his first two seasons with the program. After a promising 8.5 sack rookie year, the following two seasons have seen a combined six to give him a total of 14.5. 

    Lawson is entering a contract year and could see become a Shaquil Barrett 2.0 in his final season with the Broncos. Barrett tallied three sacks before signing with the Bucs. Last season, he led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and 37 quarterback hits. If Lawson can do something similar to that with the Bengals, that gives Carlos Dunlap a running mate for the future should they use the franchise tag.

    He needs a standout, healthy season, but Lawson’s talent is untapped. If the chains are broken, this will be a can’t-miss pass rusher in the league for many years to come. 

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