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Pro Football Focus study shows Joe Mixon struggled against light boxes

A new study from Pro Football Focus brings Joe Mixon’s underwhelming rookie season into a new light, but it’s not quite an end-all metric.

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you asked five people how Bengals running back Joe Mixon’s rookie season went, you may get five different reactions.

Pro Football Focus graded Mixon as their 15th best running back, with their best 11th-best run grade; displaying favorable optimism for what most consider an underwhelming season.

But, added context never hurts an evaluation.

PFF’s Scott Barrett released a study breaking down how each running back performed against their average box advantage, or disadvantage if you will. This took into account all carries outside of 10-yards from the opponents end zone and excluded any carry that occurred within four yards of a potential first down on third and fourth down. Essentially, these were rush attempts where the defense could expect a run or pass and didn’t sell-out to stop the run. The running backs who had 100 of these carries were charted.

These were the results.

Per the article, the purpose of this study was to provide a better context to how many more box defenders a running back was going up against compared to the number of blockers he had to work with in non-obvious running plays. On the surface, it’s a great way to look at which running backs had it easier on average and what they produced with those average box differentials.

Looking specifically at Mixon, he faced the sixth-easiest average box advantage, and was tied for the fifth-worst yards per carry, which is not a good combination to have. Barrett had this to say about Mixon:

“While Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Dalvin Cook lit the world on fire in their rookie seasons, and Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette were at worst pedestrian in efficiency relative to their average advantage, Mixon was a massive disappointment. While I still believe in Mixon’s talent due to such impressive college production, I’m easily least optimistic about his prospects in year two. Lamar Miller, Jamaal Williams, and Ameer Abdullah were all similarly disappointing relative to blocking advantage.”

Looking specifically at this metric, this is a reasonable reaction. Mixon was not lighting up many defenses last year, and in these situations, he wasn’t facing many heavy boxes relative to the Bengals personnel packages. But I don’t believe, for Mixon, it’s that cut and dry.

We’ve gone in-depth about the differences in outcomes with Mixon taking handoffs in and out of the shotgun formation, and have hammered the Bengals poor run blocking to death. These variables played a significant role in Mixon’s overall production, along with the Bengals not having a consistent passing game to take the pressure off of Mixon.

Comparing the performances of fellow rookies Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook and Kareem Hunt to Mixon’s without comparing the offense’s they were inserted into and their roles in said offense’s can also lead to premature conclusions. This goes for Christian McCaffery and Leonard Fournette as well.

It’s fair to be skeptical about Mixon’s outlook for 2018 compared to the optimism that was prevalent last offseason, especially since that the state of the offense and its personnel up front is still up in the air. But adding context on top of context can lead to even more clarity.