The Cincinnati Bengals’ running back situation could soon become a shell of its former self. The “starter” of the group, Jeremy Hill, has struggled for the last two years against every team not named the Cleveland Browns. The top “backup”, Giovani Bernard is not only coming off his worst season in terms of touchdowns, yards per carry and yards per game, but is also coming off an ACL injury. And, the only running back who showed any signs of life last season, Rex Burkhead, is on his way out of town as he just signed a new deal with the New England Patriots.
All of these factors combine to make the running back situation in Cincinnati one that will be addressed by the Bengals in this year’s NFL Draft. And while the popular consensus is that Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey will be the top three running backs selected in the NFL draft, it may very well be Joe Mixon who emerges as the top running back from this year’s draft.
Mixon’s pro day was pretty much everything you’d want from a running back. Not only did he blaze around 4.37 to 4.43 in the 40 yard dash, depending on who you ask, but he did that while weighing in at 228 pounds. He also did well in the other categories with a 35 inch vertical jump and a 9-foot-10 inch broad jump. But as great as he was in the “underwear olympic” type of events, it’s what he does in full pads on gameday that separates him from the rest of the group.
On this play (if you can’t see the below GIFs, click on the links to view them), Mixon shows good change of direction in the backfield, as he’s able to run to the opening in the line without slowing down his momentum or speed. There is no indecisiveness or wasted motion in his emergence from the backfield, and he uses his speed to run away from the defenders, before being slowed by his tight end.
On this play, the design is to run the ball between the center and right guard. Mixon starts that way and there is a small opening for him to run through, but the linebackers have sniffed this out and are ready to pounce once the running back runs through it. Most backs would take the opening and charge ahead for a couple yards, trying to get more after contact. Mixon instinctively diagnoses how the defense is unfolding on this play and makes a hard sell that this is exactly what he is going to do. He makes a stop and juke to the left, which pulls the linebackers into the gap, then instantly jumps to the right with his quick acceleration and outruns the defense for a big gain.
This play displays Mixon’s ability to make multiple cuts (in less than ideal field conditions) to avoid defenders without losing speed. He makes a cut to the left in the backfield to avoid the defensive lineman, followed by another quick cut to the right to avoid the defensive back anticipating the momentum of the first cut to lead Mixon outside. Then he avoids a third defender with a slick move that displays his good balance and natural running ability.
Here, we see Mixon bouncing back and forth, finding lanes and avoiding tacklers without losing speed or momentum.
Mixon has several defenders converging on him on this play for what should be a loss of yardage, or at least no gain. Instead, he pulls out a Barry Sanders-esque jump to avoid not only one, but two defenders who are diving for him, as he turns what should be a busted play into a first down.
Here, Mixon should be tackled for a loss. Instead he breaks free from a defensive lineman who has a grab of him, and proceeds to run past the defense. Again, his speed, balance, and power are displayed.
In each of the brief clips we see the same traits from Mixon. He has very good vision to see the openings in the play, the balance and shiftiness to make defenders miss, and the speed to outrun them. These moves would be impressive from a smaller running back, but from a bigger back they are even more so.
Unlike Hill, Mixon is a big back who can play on all three downs. He hauled in 65 receptions in two years averaging almost 14 yards per catch with 9 touchdowns. He is also good in pass protections, and unlike most high level college running backs, he brings very little wear and tear on his body with only 300 total carries for his career.
In short, he has the size and ability to pound like Hill, but his game is not limited to short yardage. He also does everything Bernard does, but a little better. He could be exactly what the Bengals need to fix their struggling running game - especially with his ability to turn broken plays into productive gains. The only question is how high should the Bengals look to draft him?