In Marvin Lewis' 14 years as head coach, the Bengals have moved from Corey Dillon to Rudi Johnson to Chris Perry to Cedric Benson to BenJarvus Green-Ellis to last year's ultimately underwhelming duo of Giovani Bernard to Jeremy Hill.
Joe Mixon, the Bengals' flashy, do-it-all rookie with great speed and receiving skills, is next.
We don't know when Mixon will take over as the lead back, but it's coming. Never in Lewis' tenure has he started a season with a rookie leading the run game, but once he picks his back, he sticks with him. The primary ball carrier for the Bengals has had at least 200 carries in 13 of 14 seasons, with an injury-riddled 2007 as the outlier.
Do you really think Hill or an ACL tear-recovering Bernard have a real chance at 200 carries? Come on.
So how does Mixon get there?
Bernard's health and Hill's effectiveness will obviously be factors, as will Mixon proving he deserves first-team reps in camp. If Bernard is healthy to start the season then Mixon's touches will be stunted. If Bernard is on the PUP list to begin the year, which isn't out of the question, then Mixon can fill in as a passing-downs back and audition over a six-game span to take over Hill's role.
The first six games: Assume Mixon gets his feet wet with a workload slightly under the 9.1 carries and 3.9 catches per game Bernard averaged last year. Remember, the Bengals won't rush him if they don't have to, and in this scenario they don't. Call it 8.1 carries and 2.9 catches per game.
The final 10 games: Mixon should lead the charge, but Bernard would return from the PUP list and Hill should still have a role, including at the goal line (grr). When Hill had the main job last season he averaged 14.2 carries per game -- that's a fair expectation for Mixon in this scenario. Also expect Mixon to see a dip in catches given Bernard's return, sliding to as low as 1.9 snares per outing.
Add it up and Mixon ends up with 191 carries and 36 catches in this scenario. It's not quite 200 carries, but it is 227 touches. It's also not as many as the 249 Hill had as a rookie, but Hill didn't have two other players to take carries.
Most significantly, it keeps Mixon within a range of touches he's used to from his college days, when he split reps with Samaje Perine and averaged 150.0 carries and 32.5 catches per season.
What hurts all of Cincy's backs is a very suspect O-line that lost two key members this offseason. On the other hand, there is a passing attack with added speed (John Ross) and multiple threats (A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert) that keep defenses from focusing on the run. Furthermore, Mixon has the flash and dash to juke defenders -- Hill and Bernard don't quite have it. It also helps that the Bengals have a favorable schedule to run against.
Forget about the 6.8 yards per carry Mixon had in college -- that's not going to happen. But Mixon should annihilate the 3.7 average Hill's run with the past two seasons, and should exceed the 8.9 receiving average Bernard sported over his career. Pencil him in for 4.5 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per grab.
Based on his projected touches, it would give him 856 rush yards and 331 receiving yards. That's just over 1,200 total yards. Not too shabby.
Don't count on a lot of touchdowns if Mixon will eventually split passing down work and lose goal-line carries. Bernard has averaged five scores per season, but won't get close to that in 2017; however, Hill has averaged nearly 10 per season on the ground. Assume Mixon takes a little less than half from both, giving him six end-zone trips.
That makes Mixon's final projection ...
A total of 1,187 yards and six scores puts him just 25 yards shy of Todd Gurley's 1,212 total yards and six scores from 2016. It's right around 140 Fantasy points in a standard-scoring league and 176 in a PPR, good enough to finish as a low-end No. 2 running back in 2016 and right about 16th at the position in 2015.
It's not too far off of where he's been getting drafted so far this summer. According to Fantasy Pros he's going as the 17th running back off the board at 42nd overall (Round 4) in non-PPR leagues and a smidge earlier in PPR formats (16th running back, 36th overall). But someone in every draft will fall in love with Mixon and take him early, maybe even by Round 3. You have to decide whether you believe he's worth the hype or not.
Mixon will be a fixture in Cincinnati, and it'll be sooner than later, but everyone who takes him can't expect huge numbers right off the bat. Hill needed half a season to establish himself and Bernard needed 10 weeks, while Rudi Johnson needed three years to finally get the nod from Lewis. It goes without saying that anyone who drafts Mixon must be willing to be patient. It will pay off in the end.