The Cincinnati Bengals have one of the best rosters in the NFL from top to bottom.
They have an elite quarterback. They have the best group of wide receivers in the league. They have a much improved offensive line. They have a solid front seven on defense, and, with the addition of DJ Turner, they have some good cornerbacks with some decent depth.
The only position group that was downgraded from last season is the safeties.
That brings us to running back. The Bengals lost Samaje Perine but replaced him with Illinois’ Chase Brown in the fifth round of the draft. And they still have Joe Mixon, who has been the focus of a ton of conjecture this offseason.
Mixon had a down year in 2022, rushing for 814 yards and seven touchdowns. He added 441 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He struggled as a pass blocker and didn’t play in the majority of the second half of the AFC Championship game because Perine was a superior pass blocker.
That wasn’t a good look for the highest-paid player on the offensive side of the ball.
In 2023, he is due $12.761 million, but the Bengals could save over $10 million of that money if they release Mixon after June 1. Considering Mixon’s down year, his struggles with pass blocking, and his potential legal troubles, it would make sense for the Bengals to look to a cheaper free agent like Ezekiel Elliot or Leonard Fournette to pair with their new rookie.
There could be another reason, though, and that’s the complete devaluation of the position across the NFL.
The Minnesota Vikings are making it very clear they’re moving on from Dalvin Cook this offseason. He is owed $14.101 million this year, but, like the Bengals, the Vikings will save $9 million of that if they cut him after June 1. They even took Cook’s picture off the team’s Twitter masthead. The difference between Cook and Mixon is that Cook is coming off his fourth straight 1,000-yard season.
So why are they dumping him?
In 1998, there were 11 running backs that carried the ball over 300 times. The league valued the running back position back then. Teams wanted to find a guy who could stay on the field as a three-down back and a workhorse.
Former Bengals running back (and a guy who should be in the Hall of Fame) Corey Dillon wasn’t one of them, but he did have 262 rushes that year.
Over the last decade of football, there have been 11 running backs who have had over 300 carries in a season.
So what happened?
Well, the evolution of the down-field passing game, and rule changes that benefit the quarterback are among the biggest contributing factors. Gone are the days of effective game managers with good defenses and running games.
Sure, there are exceptions. The Titans were the No. 1 seed in 2020, with Ryan Tannehill leaning on Derek Henry and the running game. However, after a first-round bye, the Bengals went to Nashville and won, moving on to the AFC Championship game.
The other thing that happened is the emergence of the running back by committee. Teams found they could pay two or three running backs the same amount they would pay one workhorse and have three guys, all who had different strengths and weaknesses, and now they had fresh legs and backups in case of injury. Eight of the playoff teams in 2022 had multiple running backs with over 500 rushing yards.
There’s also the emergence of the rushing quarterback. They’ve been a thing for a long time, but quarterbacks who can run the ball just as well as they throw it are more prevalent in the league now than they ever have been.
In 2022, the top two rushing teams were the Bears and Ravens. Each of those teams’ leading rusher was the quarterback.
In 2022, only Henry, Josh Jacobs, and Nick Chubb had over 300 rushing attempts. Saquon Barkley, Najee Harris, Cook, Jamaal Williams, and Miles Sanders had over 250. All those carries from Henry, Jacobs, and Chubb didn’t help the Titans, Raiders, or Browns make the playoffs.
The only running backs who did help their teams get to the playoffs were Barkley, Cook, and Sanders. The Giants were knocked out in the second round after knocking out the Vikings in the first round, and the Eagles lost the Super Bowl.
The back and forth on Mixon’s future between Bengals fans on Twitter isn’t isolated to just Cincinnati’s fans. It’s happening for every team with a running back who is getting paid a lot, and it’s clear to see the trend.
Teams don’t want to pay one running back a lot of money. They would rather pay the offensive line more money to open holes for two or three slightly less talented (and cheaper) running backs they can move on from after their contract is up. These players are easily replaced, and it’s just plug-and-play for years and years.
The change is here. It’s happening. If Mixon was a rookie in 2020, he’d be entering the last year of his rookie contract. Would you, if you were the decision maker for the Bengals, sign him to the four-year, $48 million extension like the team did after the 2019 season? Let’s pretend he had over 1,000 yards and could pass block.
The answer should still be no.