2017 RB Class

Joe Mixon is the Most Complete Back of 2017

There is no easy way to write about Joe Mixon.

What you will read in the following article will be a ringing endorsement of Joe Mixon, the running back. Above all, Mixon’s violent past has haunted football fans, NFL teams, fantasy football players, and myself all the same.

I am still uncomfortable with how much I liked Joe Mixon, the running back.

Still, though — the human element of actually enjoying a player such as Mixon and divorcing his past from the player itself is impossible. That’s a simple fact. In the end, we’re projecting and evaluating humans no matter how dark and troubled the player’s past is.

For the foreseeable future, we have to write, talk, and debate over Joe Mixon in the football universe. If by the end of this piece you (like me) still grapple with how to approach Mixon from both a real and fantasy football angle, please know that you are not alone.

Now a Bengal, Mixon was probably selected higher (at No. 48 overall) than some expected. Yet, his Yards Created data below should help illuminate every facet of talent that the Bengals’ saw in Mixon on the field. From both a real and fantasy football perspective, Joe Mixon may already be the best back from the 2017 class. Based on his landing spot, Mixon may also be the best bet to succeed early.

Let’s hit the data.

A Complete Back

In a lot of different ways, the idea of a “three-down back” is antiquated. In a recent change to become multi-dimensional, NFL offenses are specializing their attacks and featuring more receivers and backs than ever to give defenses fits. Long gone are the days of 2000 when 9 backs received 300 or more carries in a single-season. Only Ezekiel Elliott reached the 300-carry milestone in 2017, but he was still plucked from the field often on situational passing downs in favor of Lance Dunbar.

There are player’s that are asked to do it all like David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell. Those two backs specifically are extreme cases of team fit, player ability—both receiving and rushing—and situational usage that almost ceased to exist in the ever-changing NFL.

Joe Mixon fits the Johnson- and Bell-mold.

While at Oklahoma in 2016, Joe Mixon led the 2017 rookie running back class in almost every category imaginable. What’s most impressive is that Mixon stands out amongst a strong and diverse group of backs that featured two top-8 overall selections in Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.

Instead of going through and breaking down each individual category, here’s a table of where Mixon finished amongst the 2017 class in all of the major Yards Created figures that I chart. It’s surreal:

Yards Created/Attempt 1st (of 13 qualifiers)
YC/Att. vs. 7 or Fewer Defenders 1st
YC/Att. From Shotgun 2nd
YC/Att. on Inside Carries 1st
YC/Att. on Outside Carries 12th
% of Carries to Create 5+, 10+, 20+ Yards 1st
Missed Tackles Forced/Att. 1st
Targets per Route Run 1st
Yards Gained per Route Run 1st
Receiving Yards per Game 1st

That’s right.

Beyond running the ball off-tackle and with the quarterback in shotgun (only Dalvin Cook was better), Joe Mixon leads the 2017 Draft Class in every single pertinent Yards Created statistic.

Last year, Ezekiel Elliott was by far and away Yards Created’s predominant darling. This year, it is Mixon. Like Elliott (5.98 Yards Created/Attempt), Mixon dominated amongst his peers. At 6.75 Yards Created per rush, Mixon is 1.38 yards ahead of the 2017 class average and nearly two yards clear of the 2016 group average.

As far as 2017 runners go, Mixon’s patience and quick-twitch suddenness is paralleled only by Christian McCaffrey and his fluid, slashing running style is genuinely in a class of it’s own. After charting nearly 30 college backs over the past two years, Joe Mixon is the only back that matches Ezekiel Elliott’s versatility, upside, and completeness as a prospect.

On 5.60 fewer touches per game, Joe Mixon averaged nearly the same yards from scrimmage per contest (151.0) as Elliott did in his final year (155.90). Mind you, both Mixon and Elliott are both incredibly young—both couldn’t legally buy beer at the time of the NFL Draft—and both backs are equally explosive in terms of weight-adjusted 40-yard dash times (Mixon: 91st percentile; Elliott: 89th percentile).

My lone concern with Mixon’s Yards Created data is the fact that he rarely faced defensive pressure in the same vein of the heavyweights in the 2017 class. Leonard Fournette (66.7%), Christian McCaffrey (63.8%), and Dalvin Cook (42.1%) were each selected ahead of Mixon in the NFL Draft and each saw eight or more defenders in the box significantly more often than Mixon did (5.8%).

While the fact Mixon did the majority of his work versus light boxes can’t be simply whisked away, it’s important to note how astonishing Mixon was when facing seven or fewer defenders in the box. For a barometer, the average college running back sees 7 or fewer defenders in the box around 70.5% of the time.

We’re looking at just one data point and it is definitely not the be-all and end-all, but Mixon’s strength against the cream of the crop in the 2017 class is superlative:

Joe Mixon 6.98 94.2%
Dalvin Cook 6.76 57.9%
Leonard Fournette (2016 Season) 6.53 33.3%
Christian McCaffrey 5.39 36.2%

This effectively means is that once you moderately adjust the proverbial playing field—by only looking at runs versus 7 or fewer defenders on the turf at a time—Joe Mixon stands out by more than just a nose. What’s more, I’d be remiss to ignore that Mixon, while outstanding versus light boxes, did all of his work running behind the third-worst offensive line among the top-four drafted backs. With seven or fewer defenders in the box, Stanford’s group had the best offensive line (1.58 Yards Blocked/Attempt), followed by LSU (1.35 YB/Att.), Oklahoma (1.20 YB/Att.), and FSU in a very distant fourth (0.56 YB/Att.).

For Joe Mixon, the running back – I can’t find a single bad word to say.

Ambiguous Depth Chart?

At first glance, it’s easy to take a peek at Cincinnati’s backfield and scoff at Mixon’s potential in his first year. If Gio Bernard is nearing 100% health after a November 2016 ACL-tear come training camp and if Jeremy Hill somehow turns around his play after looking rather lost in the majority of his opportunities in 2015 and 2016, the Bengals indeed have a very crowded backfield.

However, consider that in his last 27 games against teams other than the Cleveland Browns, Jeremy Hill has averaged 13.9/44.6 rushing per contest. In four games against the Browns in the same timespan, Hill has gone bananas for 17.8/107.3 per day. Against legitimate run defenses (sorry, Browns’ fans) Hill has struggled mightily.

The Bengals’ addition of Mixon with a premium capital selection clearly signals that they not only want more from the running back position, but that they also want to dramatically decrease Jeremy Hill’s role. Analytically, this argument makes sense. Per SharpFootballStats Situational Rushing Success RatesJeremy Hill ranked 37th (of 58 qualifying rushers) in success rate while Gio Bernard was slightly above average (21st-of-58) in 2016.

It’s also entirely possible that the Bengals—with the most recent medical information on Gio Bernard’s knee and after two years of struggling through Jeremy Hill’s inconsistent play—just view Mixon as an upgrade over both Bernard (as a receiver) and Hill (as a rusher). Hill is a free agent at the end of 2017 and the Bengals have a potential out-clause in Bernard’s contract prior to the 2018 season.

Regardless, there is no denying that Mixon is in a gorgeous spot in his rookie season if Hill is indeed rendered third-string, or worse. Over the past three seasons, Bengals’ backs have combined to finish 9th, 13th, and 4th in running back touches. Even with Jeremy Hill’s struggles and Bernard’s injuries in 2016 and 2014, the Bengals have consistently fed their backs the ball both on the ground and through the air.

In that same timeframe, Cincinnati has finished 6th, 2nd, and 6th in total red-zone (inside of the opponents’ 20-yard line) carries. That’s quite a bit of touchdown upside.

With simply stellar Yards Created data that led a front-loaded class in virtually every meaningful data point available, Mixon is the strongest talented-based bet in the class. Not only is Mixon advanced as a rusher, he led the 2017 class in receiving yards gained per route and per game, was the most difficult back to tackle on a per attempt basis in the rookie crop, and arguably has the most fantasy-friendly landing spot of the top-four selected backs.

As far as ceiling crashing fantasy studs go, Joe Mixon looks the part.

(Originally posted May 2017 at Fantasy Guru).

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