State of the Cincinnati Bengals – No Position Will See More Change Than Running Back

The Cincinnati Bengals are likely to move on from Joe Mixon this offseason, so what will the young running back room look like after that?

CINCINNATI — No position is in greater flux than running back as the Cincinnati Bengals head into 2024.

In the second installment of a series of articles looking at each position group, let’s tackle the one where change seems imminent.

To read the first part on quarterbacks, click here.

State of the Bengals Franchise: Running Backs

After preaching efficiency over explosion early in the Zac Taylor/Brian Callahan era, the Bengals were open about their desire to create more chunk plays heading into last offseason. Joe Mixon does a lot of things well, but exploding into the second level and running away from defenders is not one of them.

Let’s take a look at each running back on the 2023 roster and what to expect in 2024, followed by an overall assessment of the group and where it’s headed schematically:

Joe Mixon (Signed Through 2024)

Mixon agreed to a pay cut that was offset some by incentives heading into 2023, and he turned in another solid season, topping 1,000 yards for the fourth time in his career while catching 52 passes for 376 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns (nine rushing, three receiving).

Mixon hit a $250,000 incentive with 10 touchdowns and added another $100,000 by getting 12 in the season finale.

But Mixon will turn 28 in July, which is well beyond the age where running backs start to show decline. And the more important number is his $8.9 million cap hit. If the Bengals cut him, the dead cap number is only $2.8 million, for a savings of $6.1 million.

There is no chance the Bengals will pay Mixon $8.9 this year, so the question is whether they would request another pay cut. And if they do, would he swallow his pride and accept it a second year in a row?

The Bengals didn’t announce Mixon’s pay cut until July 15 last year. That won’t be the case this offseason. He is due a guaranteed $3 million roster bonus on March 16, which is the third day of the new league year.

Chase Brown (Signed Through 2026)

The Bengals drafted Brown to add the explosive element they were looking for, but they were reluctant to lean a rookie early, especially in light of the entire offense being compromised by Joe Burrow’s calf injury.

Once Burrow was healthy, the offense was hitting its stride, and Brown was getting more comfortable, he suffered a hamstring injury that landed him on IR.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals Depth Chart

It wasn’t until Week 12 in the Monday night game at Jacksonville when the Bengals created a specific package for Brown, and he made an impact right away.

Not only did Brown bring a different element to the run and screen games, but he proved to be a tough runner between the tackles. Still, his size and durability create questions about whether he can carry the load. The Mixon-Brown 1-2 punch never developed, but a Brown-TBA 1-2 punch could be in the works for 2024.

Trayveon Williams (Unrestricted Free Agent)

A member of Taylor’s first draft class in 2019, Williams has never had more than 26 carries in a season. But he saw his role on special teams expand this year with 294 snaps, the third most on the team.

He knows the system and is a quality depth piece, averaging 5.0 yards per carry for his career. Williams would not cost much to retain, and with Brown being the only sure bet to be back next season, it would make sense for the Bengals to re-sign Williams.

Chance of return: 66%

Chris Evans (Signed Through 2024)

Things have never clicked between Evans and the coaching staff. The Bengals gave him a chance to win the third-down role vacated by Samaje Perine, and Evans was unable to secure that against a less-than-formidable field, resulting in the coaches throwing up their hands and just putting tight end Drew Sample in the backfield on third downs.

Evans, who got off on the wrong foot early in his career by freelancing too much as a ball career, fell so far out of favor that he was inactive for the final seven games of the season.

As a sixth-round pick in 2021, his cap hit this season is only $1.1 million, so expect the Bengals to give him one more look in training camp. But there is still a hill to climb to make the 53-man roster, especially if the Bengals add running backs through the draft and/or free agency, as well as undrafted guy or two.

What’s Next?

Between the Senior Bowl and the Combine, the Bengals are going to be locked in on the 2024 running back class. Their stated desire to get more explosive was never going to happen, with Mixon eating up the bulk of the snaps, but the time has come to move the group forward.

“We need to find ways to do more explosive in the run game, whatever that looks like,” Callahan said. “We’ve had a couple. We had a few in that Jacksonville game with Chase. We’ve had a few here and there, but we just need more of that. Those are the things that have shown up down this back half of the season that have allowed us to be pretty competitive in the games we’ve been playing given our injury circumstances.”

MORE: Bengals Were Among the Best in 2 Key Categories, Setting Stage for 2024

There are a number of high-priced running backs expected to hit free agency, but it’s doubtful the Bengals would be in the market for a Derrick Henry or Saquon Barkley.

But there are some intriguing options among the group of backs whose AAV in 2023 was less than $3 million, including one who played with Burrow at LSU.

Some of the options:

  • Devin Singletary
  • Clyde Edwards-Hellaire
  • D’Andre Swift
  • D’Onta Foreman
  • Damien Harris
  • JK Dobbins
  • Kareem Hunt
  • AJ Dillon

The Bengals are also likely to use one of their nine draft picks on a running back and should be active in recruiting the undrafted ones, selling them on a chance to play with Burrow and a great chance to make the roster in a group that isn’t likely to have an established starter.

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