We now have fewer than three weeks until the NFL Draft, which is deep at the running back position. But, there are still some useful free agent running backs out there who will find homes at some point this off-season. And there are also plenty of teams that will want to add a running back or two.
One of those teams should be the Cincinnati Bengals, who appear destined to release or trade Joe Mixon this off-season. Mixon struggled on the field in efficiency, but more notably, awaits a refiling of charges by the Cincinnati Police Department stemming from an altercation where he allegedly pointed a gun at a woman.
The Bengals would be smart to move on from Mixon for a myriad of reasons. Last season Mixon was outplayed on a per-touch basis by backup Samaje Perine, who is now in Denver. Mixon also led the league in percent of rushing attempts into light boxes, but did not take advantage:
Despite leading the league in percentage of runs to come against light boxes (42.2%), Joe Mixon averaged:— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) April 6, 2023
3.9 yards per carry (36th among 44 backs with 100 or more carries)
2.61 yards after contact per carry (39th)
8.4% of his carries went for 10 or more yards (34th)
Free agent running back options
The Bengals will have options, both in the draft and free agency, to replace him if he goes. In free agency we have a few backs left, but the best are Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, and Jerick McKinnon.
The Bengals need a running back who can catch passes and has enough juice to be a threat between the tackles. And if they can’t find that, they’ll likely again want to split up the passing down snaps like they did with Mixon and Perine last season.
On paper, Hunt and McKinnon look like good options, as they are strong in the receiving game, while Elliott and Fournette are decent options, but have undoubtedly lost a step. The Bengals are in win-now mode, but feel they have the team to win-now for a long time. These free agency options would almost assuredly be coupled with taking a running back at some point in the draft.
NFL Draft options
I’m not going to get into the weeds on all the running back options in the draft here, but there is a strong group that will be available in the second and third rounds. But, for this discussion, we’ll want to take a look at Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs. Robinson is the cream of the running back crop this year and all signs point to him being taken in the first round. The position itself has been devalued in the NFL due to the passing game taking over along with running backs splitting snaps to keep each other fresh and to do specific jobs like blocking, receiving, etc. A running back, no matter how good, does have a chance to slip in the draft.
Robinson is without a doubt good enough to be considered a first rounder, as he is a dominant player, while also being quite good at all the intricacies of the position. He is an every-down back and whoever drafts him will play him as such. To have his ability between the tackles and on the edge, while also being more than proficient in the receiving game would be perfect for the Bengals and their already great offense.
The problem here is that Robinson could be gone by the time the Bengals get to make their 28th pick. If he were to fall, I think they’d take the plunge. But if he’s gone, they could pivot to Alabama’s Gibbs.
Gibbs isn’t the early down runner Robinson is and wouldn’t be a guy they’d want to pound the rock, but he does have tremendous speed and receiving chops. He fits the Bengals offense extremely well and if they wanted, they could add Elliot or Fournette for short-yardage and to take some punishment in their old age.
Cincinnati sounds ready to move on from Mixon and it would make sense to do so. The addition of Robinson or Gibbs would elevate their offense and possibly get them over the hump against the Chiefs in 2023.