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2018 Breakout Player

By Kevin English | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

Our Breakout Player failed to meet last year’s expectations.

An early-round pick, he posted only 2 top-15 fantasy weeks. That certainly wasn’t enough to satisfy owners.

As we’ll see, though, this guy played in a gloomy environment. Fortunately, his outlook appears much brighter this go-around.

We’re talking about Bengals RB Joe Mixon.


Suspended for the 2014 season while at Oklahoma, Mixon’s college résumé isn’t robust. He tallied seasons of 113 and 187 carries — albeit for 6.7 yards per carry. He also combined for 65 receptions at a WR-like 13.7 yards per catch.

What we saw on tape backed the notion of Mixon as a dynamic, multidimensional back. His testing numbers did, too. At Oklahoma’s Pro Day, the 6’1, 228-pounder blazed a 4.50 forty. The resulting 113.2 speed score ranked 93rd percentile among NFL RBs. His SPARQ-x score — a measure of athleticism — put him in the 75th percentile at his position.

So Mixon checks boxes for size, college production, athleticism and pure football talent. Arriving to Cincinnati as a Round 2 pick, surely he’d produce right away …

Rookie-Year Blues

Of course, that never happened. Perhaps Mixon’s youth (21 years old) played a role. Or his relative lack of college experience.

But there are a host of other factors that unquestionably hurt.

First, this offense lacked depth behind A.J. Green. Tyler Eifert lasted 2 games before another back surgery forced him to injured reserve. Speedy rookie John Ross, the 9th overall pick, played only 17 snaps due to injuries and poor play.

Then, there’s the O-line. Football Outsiders placed the unit 24th in Adjusted Line Yards. Head over to Pro Football Focus, and you’ll find that only 1 Bengal lineman received a run-blocking grade north of 50.0 (LG Clint Boling). The Bengals used 21 different O-line combos, a number only 4 teams surpassed.

So, Andy Dalton tallied his worst completion rate (59.9%) and yards per attempt (6.7) since 2011.

Let's see how personnel issues affected offensive output...

(Hint: It's not pretty)

NOTE: Numbers date back to 2011 to reflect performance during Dalton’s tenure.

What really stands out is Cincy’s 32nd-place finish in plays per game last year. From 2011-2016, the team averaged 1,033 plays per season. That’s 107 more than their 2017 total — nearly 2 full games worth.

And the quirks to Mixon’s season didn’t end there.

The Bengals fired OC Ken Zampese after just 2 games. Mixon handled only 21 touches over the first 2 weeks but reached that mark in Weeks 3 and Week 4 alone. New (and current) play-caller Bill Lazor clearly game-planned more action for Mixon.

But for each step forward, there seemed to be 2 steps back. A concussion cut short his Week 13 and forced absences in Weeks 14 and 15. Upon returning, Mixon tweaked his ankle and missed 3 quarters of another contest.

In total, Mixon scored just 4 TDs and averaged 3.5 yards per carry on 178 attempts. Among 34 RBs with 150+ attempts last year, only 4 posted a worse average.

So, the general consensus is that 2017 was a complete dud. However, there are some encouraging takeaways.

Reasons for Optimism

Down the stretch, Mixon seemed to find a groove. From Week 12 onward — a sample of 51 carries — he averaged 5.0 yards per rush.

On the year, he factored in prominently near the goal line, seeing 78.3% of Cincy’s runs inside the 10 (per Pro Football Reference). That rate led the league.

Mixon ranked 11th league-wide in Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades (min. 100 carries). His Week 12 performance vs. Cleveland earned him the 5th-highest single-game grade by a RB all year.

Football Outsiders had him 17th in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement and 19th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. (Both are out of 47 qualifiers.)

2018 Environment

Mixon enters year 2 as the undisputed lead back.

Back at the Combine, player personnel director Duke Tobin called Mixon a “bellcow.”

In June, Bengals reporter Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer shared the following:

“I think this offense is going to be based around what Joe Mixon can be. That's how they [the coaching staff] view it. I think they view him as their Ezekiel Elliott. They're going to come in with this Frank Pollack style [and] blow them off the ball.”

Dehner added that this offense is expected to “simplify, add aggression and see an overall shift of focus toward the run game.”

Such a transition is possible with OC Bill Lazor entering his 1st full season on the job and the aforementioned Pollack (the new OL coach) now in town.

Pollack arrives after coaching the O-line in Dallas from 2013-2017 (the 1st 2 years as an OL assistant). His power style sits in stark contrast to what the Bengals primarily ran last season.

Wisely, the front office overhauled the O-line, which could feature as many as 4 new starters. Newcomers Cordy Glenn (LT) and Billy Price (C) bring the most promise.

Glenn, 28, arrived in a trade with Buffalo. Health has been the issue for the mammoth tackle, forcing 17 absences over the past 2 seasons. But he’s healthy entering camp and should supply a much-needed upgrade.

Price joined the Bengals as their 1st-round pick, even though he suffered a partially torn pectoral at the Combine. That he still went so high speaks to his talent level. Already a full participant in camp, Price is a Day 1 starter and profiles as another upgrade.

The Bengals do have questions at RG and RT, but with new faces and a new leader of the group, we’re confident the blocking will improve in front of Mixon will improve.

We’re optimistic on the skill guys, too. Eifert remains a major red flag but insists he’ll be fine for Week 1 and missed less than a week of training camp before coming off the PUP list. Ross, back healthy, has flashed early in camp and brings the potential to stretch defenses. Even 3rd-year slot WR Tyler Boyd has generated early summer buzz.

Weight Cut

Mixon reportedly played last season around 230 pounds. But in a move that’s typically applauded, the 2nd-year man has cut weight — 12 pounds to be exact.

“I feel like that’s where I play my best," Mixon told the Bengals’ official site. "I was trying to get low last year but I wasn’t able to make it. I feel real good. My body feels real good. I feel like I’m in really good shape.”

Frankly, Mixon better be in excellent shape, as his workload should spike this fall.

From 2011-2016, the Bengals averaged 393 RB rushes per season. (They were way down at 331 in their outlier 2017.) If we apply Mixon’s 53.8% share of 2017 RB carries to the 6-year average, you get 211 carries.

Then you have to account for Jeremy Hill’s departure and the 37 carries he leaves behind.

And Mixon’s 2 full missed games (concussion).

And his 5 combined quarters missed (concussion and ankle).

Though that lens, our 224-carry projection becomes very reachable.

But what about Gio Bernard? Isn’t his presence a hindrance to Mixon?

Probably not …

Bernard’s Impact

We’ll say up front that we’re big fans of Bernard. He’s one of the game’s better receiving backs and provides a nice change of pace on the ground.

As a rusher, Bernard just wasn’t very involved in 2017. His 6.6 carries per game marked a career low. Perhaps some of it resulted from his torn ACL from November 2016 — the 2nd such injury of his career. (He tore the right ACL in college.)

But with positive buzz surrounding Mixon, we have no reason to believe Bernard’s role grows. He averaged only 8.2 opportunities (carries + targets) in a sample of 10 full games alongside Mixon and OC Lazor. Bernard reached a 50% snap share only once over that stretch.

We peg him for just 92 carries.

As a receiver, of course, he’ll remain involved. Cincy remains relatively thin at pass-catcher. And again, Gio’s an extremely talented receiver. That’s clear by his career yards per catch mark of 9.0. He’s caught — or has been on pace for — 43+ catches in all 5 NFL seasons.

Mixon’s simply too good to ignore out of the backfield. We saw it last year when he tallied 30 catches for 9.6 yards per reception and ranked 6th among RBs in yards per target with 8.4 (min. 25 receptions). It was encouraging to see the Bengals dial up several designed screens.

That certainly meshed with his career at Oklahoma, as he ranks 3rd among RBs in school history in receiving yards; 4th in career receptions. Remember that he played only 2 seasons (25 games). This guy is a special talent. So consider workload a non-issue here.

Wrap Up

We know we're not unearthing some big secret. Entering August, Mixon's ADP sits in late-2nd-round or early-3rd-round territory. He's RB14 in recent My Fantasy League drafts; RB15 on Fantasy Football Calculator.

We still see profit potential, though. Mixon currently sits 11th in our PPR ranks with an attainable ceiling projection of 298 points. That finish would have ranked 4th among RBs last season, 4th in 2016 and 2nd in 2015.

He's young. He's uber-athletic. He's poised for workhorse touches. Now with an O-line that should at least improve and an offense primed to bounce back, we're confident putting our full endorsement behind Mixon.

Honorable Mention Breakout Player: Corey Davis, WR, Titans

Just. Stay. Healthy.

Davis’ impressive all-around skill set was suppressed for much of 2017, and it started with January ankle surgery.

Healthy come summer time, Davis suffered a hamstring injury early in training camp that forced him to miss all but a few practices. He returned for Week 1 after missing the entire preseason.

That obviously prevented a chance to jell with Marcus Mariota. So, misconnections surfaced in the regular season, as Davis posted a 53.2% catch rate despite only 1 drop (65 targets).

Davis also experienced a Week 2 setback, forcing 5 absences. We at least saw flashes late in the year — lines of 6-91 (vs. the Rams) and 5-63-2 (vs. New England in the postseason).

Consider that sample a window into his 2018 upside.

The Titans are “counting on Davis to make a big leap in year 2," per Titans beat man Jim Wyatt.

And why wouldn’t they? Tennessee spent the 5th overall pick on him following a super-productive career at Western Michigan. He’s a 6’3, 209-pounder with high-end route-running and run-after-catch ability.

Davis is healthy and turning heads in training camp. He’s finally working though this critical period alongside Mariota. And he’s doing so with a new — and likely improved — play-caller.

Matt LaFleur held the title of OC with the Rams last year. While he didn’t call plays, he obviously played a role in the Rams' extreme turnaround. L.A. ranked 1st in points, 5th in yards per play and 10th in total yards.

LaFleur comes from an impressive coaching tree of Gary Kubiak, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. He’s helped massage top seasons out of Robert Griffin (as Washington QBs coach in 2012), Matt Ryan (as Atlanta QBs coach in 2016) and Jared Goff. That bodes well for Mariota’s development.

Then there’s the health of Rishard Matthews, who’s yet to participate in camp and currently resides on the PUP list. Even if it’s precautionary, we don’t see him as a major obstacle. Davis is a vastly superior athlete with true #1 potential; the #2 role best suits Matthews.

With 130 targets within reach, Davis should be considered a dark horse to crack the top 15 WRs in fantasy points this season. He’s a strong pick at his 6th-round ADP.

Kevin English Author Image
Kevin English, Senior Analyst
Kevin brings 15 years of experience as a fantasy analyst and mid-stakes competitor across various formats (redraft, best ball, dynasty, DFS). His work has been featured on The Mercury News, Rotoworld, and FantasyPros.
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