Prior to the 2020 season, the Cincinnati Bengals handed Joe Mixon a contract extension, paying him like an elite runner. Some panned the team for paying a running back so much money while others showed excitement about keeping Mixon around. Regardless of initial opinions, it’s time for Mixon to prove the Bengals right about their decision to extend. After an ill-fated first year on the deal, he’ll need to have a big impact in the second.
One Year Later, It’s Time for the Joe Mixon Contract Extension To Prove Its Value
Perhaps faster than expected, the bill is coming due on the Joe Mixon contract extension. Inked just days ahead of the 2020 season, Mixon needs to start making good on the contract. The deal, spanning four years and paying Mixon up to $48 million ($10 million guaranteed), has an out after the second year. In 2020, Mixon only rushed for 428 yards and three touchdowns on 3.6 yards per touch. Granted, he suffered a season-ending foot injury in the team’s Week 6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Still, the extent of the foot injury was never disclosed, adding further concern about Mixon’s future. In recent years, the analytics community has proven the massive risk in agreeing to a second contract with a running back. For Mixon, it’s a chance to prove that notion to be overblown.
Heading into the 2021 season, there’s an organizational expectation that Mixon will play a major role in the offense. Following the departure of Giovani Bernard this off-season, Mixon’s role is certainly expected to increase. “I don’t want Joe to leave the field, personally, and I think he’s up to that challenge,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said to Cincinnati’s Local 12 News. “He has some things he has to improve pass-protection-wise. Joe shouldn’t come off the field, he should be on the field every down. He’s aware of that.” The expectations are high for Mixon this season, as they should be for a player making the sixth-most cash on the team.
Upgraded Offensive Line and New Running Game Coach Should Be a Major Benefit
Now, it’s not all on the shoulder of Mixon in 2021. The team hasn’t had quality line play since 2018 and coaching was a big reason for that factor. This offseason, the team kicked former offensive line coach Jim Turner to the curb. In place, they hired Frank Pollack, adding the title of running game coordinator to his role. Importantly, Pollack was the one coaching the offensive line when Mixon’s 1,168 yards led AFC rushers in 2018. Further, Mixon posted an 81.4 running grade that season according to Pro Football Focus, the highest of his career. Certainly, the team has changed out a lot of pieces on the offensive line since that campaign. Regardless, Mixon and center Billy Price expressed a lot of excitement about Pollack’s return to the helm.
In addition, plugging in Riley Reiff at right tackle and Jackson Carman at right guard should be a boon for Cincinnati’s run game. The team replaces two of their biggest positional flaws in Bobby Hart and the revolving door at guard with that duo. Further, Quinton Spain is a well-respected run-blocker at will now get a full off-season to work in the Bengals offense.
What if the Joe Mixon Contract Doesn’t Meet the Value?
If the team had more options, the pressure for the Joe Mixon contract to pay off in a hurry would be even higher. Fortunately for Mixon, the Bengals don’t have much premium running talent behind the 24-year-old back. Samaje Perine is more of a rotational player and Trayveon Williams hasn’t impressed in limited action. The Cincinnati Bengals could’ve put the heat on Mixon using a high selection in this year’s draft. While it wasn’t an elite class of running backs, a player like Trey Sermon would’ve made some sense with the team’s third-round pick. Regardless, their decision to select Chris Evans in the sixth round is more of a Bernard solution than a replacement-in-waiting.
Still, as previously mentioned, the Bengals control Mixon’s future after this season. They’ll only eat $8.5 million in dead cap if they decide to cut the back after this season. Certainly, it seems more likely that Mixon sticks around if he stays healthy and plays even at a solid level. However, if he doesn’t, the team is well within their right to show him the door. After all, they need a running back who can take pressure off of Joe Burrow. The quarterback was asked to drop back too much in 2020, regardless of how well he played. If Mixon can’t help in that capacity, it’s going to be hard to justify keeping Mixon in town.
Mixon Must Become a Three-Down Running Back
The Bengals paid Joe Mixon to represent them as one of the game’s elite runners. Part of that role is certainly adjusting to life as a three-down back. In the past, the team has kicked Mixon off the field for passing downs, opting to use Bernard in those situations. Going forward, that’s not going to work; plain and simple. Sure, Bernard is one of the best pass-protecting running backs in the game and his role is hard to replace. With Mixon, the Bengals need to get the running back comfortable helping keep Burrow vertical in passing sets, which will come in training camp. Further, they need him to play a much bigger role as a pass-catcher. He’s only snagged 129 receptions in his career, averaging 7.8 yards per catch. This season, it’d be ideal to get him at least three to four targets a week. They need Mixon to be more versatile than ever before, as this team expands its potentially deadly passing offense.
There is going to be a lot of pressure on Joe Mixon to perform in 2021; there’s simply no doubt about that fact. With their re-investment in the offensive line and return of Frank Pollack, he’s well-positioned to make that happen. Still, returning from an injury that knocked him out for ten weeks last season will be a tricky task. Overall, Mixon needs to prove his contract to be valuable for the Bengals organization. If he doesn’t, he’ll be among cases like Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell. On the other hand, if Mixon plays well, this Bengals offense gets pretty scary for defensive coordinators.
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