Continuing to hand out report cards, the Cincinnati Bengals running back grades could decide how the franchise moves forward. Heading into the season, there were high hopes for this unit. The franchise back had a career year the last time Cincinnati employed Frank Pollack as offensive line coach. They had made at least a minimal effort to improve the trenches. Joe Burrow was coming off of a major knee injury so the offense was projected to lean on the run game to ease him back. Over the year, each of the Bengals running backs made plays, so who makes the grade?
Cincinnati Bengals Running Back Grades
Joe Mixon: A-
Regular season: 292 rushes, 1,205 yards, 13 touchdowns; 42 receptions, 314 yards, three touchdowns
Playoffs: 67 rushes, 262 yards, one touchdown; 18 receptions, 107 yards; 1-1 passing, six yards, one touchdown
For the fifth year in a row, Joe Mixon led the Bengals in rushing yards and touchdowns. Yes, he even led in 2020 when he missed 10 games. Despite running behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, Mixon had a career year. In 16 games, he carried the ball 292 times for 1,205 and 13 touchdowns. He spent all year as a top-five running back and finished fifth in yards and fourth in touchdowns across the league. In Cincinnati’s four playoff games, Mixon finished with just one touchdown and 262 yards off of 67 attempts.
As is the case with Burrow, Mixon had to overcome an inordinate amount of pressure due to an inept offensive line. Of those 1,205 rushing yards, 662 came before contact. Far too often, Mixon made plays by dodging defenders in the backfield as he is handed the ball.
Mixon is an elite running back in today’s NFL. He gets plenty of flak for his four-year, $48 million contract. The “don’t pay running backs” crowd has its merit, but Mixon has been a game-changer when given the opportunity. His vision and strength are the two things that set him apart from the rest of the Bengals backs. On his touchdown run against the Titans in the AFC Divisional round, Mixon was supposed to run through the right side of the line. There was no daylight there, so he bounced it out, out-ran the lone defender in the area, and put the Bengals up by two scores.
JOE MIXON 🏠📞pic.twitter.com/qDLfhg8Y1s
— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) January 22, 2022
Mixon was going to easily earn the highest of the Bengals running back grades. He should work on being more reliable in the passing game, however. The coaching staff didn’t trust him enough to have him on the field for their two-minute offense. If they did, Mixon gets the ball on the final drive of Super Bowl LVI, likely gets the first, and Cincinnati has a better shot to win it all. Regardless, he put up career-bests in yards (314) with three scores from 42 receptions. At this point, Mixon is fifth all-time in Bengals history with 4,564 yards and sixth with 33 touchdowns.
Samaje Perine: C
Regular season: 55 rushes, 246 yards, one touchdown; 27 receptions, 196 yards, one touchdown
Playoffs: three rushes, two yards; four receptions, 47 yards, one touchdown
The non-offensive line scapegoat of many Bengals fans’ frustrations last season was Samaje Perine. Perine is a decent RB2, though probably should be RB3 on this team. Through the playoffs, Perine made one great play and a few not-so-great plays. His touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs to cut into the 21-3 deficit was as improbable and momentous as could be, considering he was seriously struggling to that point in the game. In the previous game against Tennessee, his drop resulted in an interception.
Perine’s role on this team is interesting. Cincinnati loves to use him as a blocking running back during obvious passing situations, though they split him out periodically. When in space, Perine is a fine player, but if you’re taking reps away from Mixon, you need to be a little better than fine.
On the year, Perine ran for 248 yards and one score off of 58 rushes and reeled in 31 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Between rushing and receiving, Perine averaged 5.5 yards per touch. If Cincinnati thinks they can move on from Perine and get an additional back via the draft, they’d save about $1.8 million by cutting Perine. He’s by no means a terrible running back but a team looking to get back to the Super Bowl could look to have a less drastic drop from RB1 to RB2.
Chris Evans: B
Regular season: 17 rushes, 77 yards; 15 receptions, 151 yards, two touchdowns
Playoffs: two rushes, 13 yards; one reception, three yards
Free Chris Evans. For a sixth-round rookie, there really weren’t any tangible expectations. Coming out of Michigan, Evans was never really utilized due to missing a chunk of time from academic issues. There were concerns with Evans and whether or not he’s already played his best football. Considering he was second-string to a guy who is without an NFL job, these were legitimate concerns. His upside was high, however. Evans is a quick back who was going to be utilized in the pass game.
His rookie season was quiet due to his position of RB3 on the depth chart. The Bengals got flashes of what he could do, evident by his ability to make difficult catches. His first-career touchdown came on a diving catch against the Lions and his second came off of a four-yarder in Week 18.
— TWSN (@TWSN___) October 17, 2021
Realistically, the sample size for Evans is small and probably shouldn’t have received one of the Bengals running back grades. The difference between him and the final running back is his ability to make you go “wait, what?” Evans is an athlete that needs to see the field. Evidently, Cincinnati believed the same. Once playoffs began, Evans started returning kicks. He turned nine returns into 211 yards and set the Bengals offense up favorably with almost every touch.
Evans has the ability to take it to the house if given the opportunity. If he can improve his pass blocking, he very well could take Perine’s spot on the roster and could also provide Cincinnati with a pop on screens and check downs. It helps that he was the one who caught Burrow’s record-breaking pass in Week 16 on a great matchup.
Trayveon Williams: Not enough data
Season stats: 15 rushes, 51 yards; one reception, four yards
Trayveon Williams was only active for five games in 2021 and recorded a rushing attempt in two. Those two games? Week 6 when Mixon was inactive and Week 18 when the Bengals played their backups.
Running Backs are Still Important
During the 2021 season, Mixon was the sixth-highest cap hit among all running backs. Cincinnati would not have gotten as far as they did without his services. Cincinnati runs an offense that needs running backs to carry their weight. Taking pressure off of Burrow and pass blocking are two obvious needs. However, considering the Bengals love to line up in empty, they need a running back who can run routes and make plays in case it gets checked down.
The next position group will be one of the best in the NFL: the wide receivers. Could the Offensive Rookie of the Year end up with the first A+ of the year?
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