There are several age-old questions that will never have answers.
“What came first; the chicken or the egg?”
“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
“Do running backs matter?”
The egg, 18 pieces, 100% they do.
While the position and need for ground and pound schemes have diminished in the NFL’s pass-happy league, running backs still play a vital role in the league today.
Recently, PFN’s Matt Williamson compiled his list for the top 25 running backs in the NFL. Some names fell shorter than expectation (I.E., Todd Gurley No.22, Le’Veon Bell No.18). Others were placed correctly among the best after quality seasons (Saquon Barkley No.2, Christian McCaffery No.1).
This brings up the question: Was Joe Mixon’s ranking too high, too low, or just right?
Breaking down Matt Williamson’s 2020 ranking of Joe Mixon
Williamson, an accomplished scout who spent his fair share covering the AFC North, certainly has a keen eye for the division. Placing the fourth-year runner second among backs in the division, it’s hard to argue with the overall analysis of Mixon’s status at No.8.
“On their best days, Mixon is more talented than Gurley.” Williamson wrote. “And in Zac Taylor’s second season as a head coach, we could see Mixon flourish much as Gurley did with the Los Angeles Rams while Taylor was there. In fact, Mixon’s numbers really spiked to finish the year last season.
“You would like to see him catch more than 35 passes, but Mixon is the total package physically for the running back position and could be primed to advance even higher on this top NFL running backs list after the 2020 season. Just imagine if Mixon were, say, on the Dallas Cowboys these last few years.”
Overall, the location of the player does matter. In Mixon’s case, it’s allowed him to flourish as a star in just a terrible situation. Since being drafted out of Oklahoma 47th overall, the Bengals have gone 15-33. In that time, the former Sooner has been the one constant on offense.
Mixon has thrived in a difficult situation
Between the constant guessing of the offensive line and amongst the quarterback carousel, Mixon has remained productive. In the past two seasons alone, the 24-year-old has tallied 2,888 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
As the lead runner in a depleted backfield, Mixon’s production is far from unmatched. Last season, he finished fifth among active running backs in rushing attempts with 278. Compare that to the remainder of carries among players, Mixon tallied 72% of the Bengals rushing.
When placing him among active runners, there’s a case to be made for his No.8 ranking. Even in a breakout year for both Green Bay’s Aaron Jones and Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs, the two came in at 10 and 9, respectively. Consistency factored into Williamson’s ranking and Mixon’s back-to-back 1,000-yard season pushed him over the edge.
Just below Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, the trio could be viewed in a tie based off scheme fit. For Taylor’s offense, Henry or Chubb would likely fizzle while Mixon stands out. The same could be said for the Bengals runner in Arthur Smith’s more power-style rushing attack.
However, it would be interesting to see how Mixon would fare alongside new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. As one of the teams interested in Mixon in 2017, could he have succeeded in an offense that made Dalvin Cook a household name?
What Williamson thinks Mixon can do better
The only flaw one could see in Williamson’s analysis is the reception total. Granted, Mixon did finish with only 35 catches last season, but the offense wasn’t successful through the air. Much like Jones in Green Bay, Mixon actually was used as a No.3 option in the back half of the season.
With John Ross III missing eight games, this forced Alex Erickson and Auden Tate to emerge as immediate replacements. The two combined for 83 catches, 1,104 yards, and one score. On the other hand, Mixon finished fifth in catches while scoring another three touchdowns through the air.
Through Week’s 9-17, Mixon became more balanced as a well-round offensive weapon. Finishing with 107 yards from 19 catches as well as his 320 rushing yards, his success as a receiving option helped the Bengals secure a victory in Week 13. Mixon also tallied a 77% catch rate, which was highest among Bengals who played in 10 games.
Cincinnati’s offense wasn’t anything in 2019 outside of Tyler Boyd and Mixon. With a future franchise starter in Joe Burrow, the duo will have the opportunity to shine brighter. But the pressure could be on Mixon more who, despite quality play, is entering a contract season.
Williamson’s overall top 10 running backs are close to unanimous among most NFL media members. Their ranks could swap after the top three of McCaffery, Barkley, and Elliott. For that reason, Mixon still might be too low.
In an offense depleted all-around, there isn’t a more flashy and consistent weapon in the Jungle than their running back. Always able to change the narrative, Mixon does what is asked of him and excels. Need a bruiser? His carry count speaks volumes. You need him to take the pressure off by having him stretch as a route-runner? He’s got you covered.
Mixon’s one of seven running backs to cross the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two years. He’s done it behind one — if not the worst — offense line in the NFL. Imagine him in New Orleans or Vegas or even Dallas, for that matter? Are his numbers even better? Absolutely.
The No.8 ranking is exceptional, but two spots higher might be more suiting. Williamson said he could be on the rise in 2020, so best believe his stock should soar with the return of Jonah Williams.