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People have been waiting for Joe Mixon to make the leap to the elite tier of the running back position for a few years now, and for the most part, he has left them wanting. He's been solid, but hasn't consistently been the kind of player many hoped. However, the Bengals released Giovani Bernard on Wednesday, which could open up a path for Mixon to make that leap in 2021. What does he need to happen to get there?

First off, let's take a look at where Mixon has been the past few seasons. In 2018, he finished as RB9 in PPR points per game, though there was a 3.5 point gap between him (17.4 per game) and RB8, Kareem Hunt (20.9). In 2019, Mixon finished as RB13, but he was just RB21 per game. And in 2020, he was RB11 per game before a foot injury ended his season after just six games. So, he's been a fringe No. 1 running back for Fantasy since he's been a full-time starter, but rarely an elite one. 

And the stretches where he has played like an elite running back have been pretty few and far between and have required a ton of volume: He averaged 27.3 PPR points per game over the final four games of 2018 on 23.3 touches per game, and then averaged 18.2 over the final eight of 2019 on a whopping 24.1 touches per game. Mixon has been a low-efficiency runner (4.1 yards per attempt) on a team that hasn't given him many scoring opportunities (20 rush touchdowns in 50 games) and he hasn't caught many passes (2.6 per game). That's a tough combination to turn into an elite Fantasy performer.

Joe Mixon
CIN • RB • 28
Att119
Yds428
TD3
FL1
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Of course, 2021 could be very different in that regard. At least, that's the hope. The release of Bernard could help fix the latter issue, as Bernard has averaged 2.3 receptions per game compared to 2.52 for Mixon in the 46 games they'd played together. The Bengals threw 102 passes to their running backs last season, and while that isn't a huge number -- especially not given their 581 passes -- it's a healthy number if Mixon could get, say, 65% of them. 

Mixon has never had more than 55 targets in a season, but a leap to 65 or 70 would make it a lot easier to get him to that elite level. Mixon has caught 80.6% of his targets in his career, so 55 wouldn't be too much to ask, and at his career 7.8 yards per catch, that gets you to 429 yards -- and we'll throw in a couple of touchdowns to go along with that. Over the past three seasons, the average top-12 finisher at RB had 56 catches, 472 yards and 2.8 touchdowns. So that would be a good place for Mixon to end up, given his consistently strong volume in the running game.

But it wouldn't necessarily be enough to lock him in as an elite back. The offense around him would probably need to take a step forward, giving him more running lanes and more opportunities to find the end zone. The Bengals pick fifth in the 2021 draft, so they'll be looking to add an impact player, and it seems clear it will be an offensive player.

In the four most recent mock drafts on CBSSports.com, we've got Oregon OL Penei Sewell, LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase (twice) and Florida TE Kyle Pitts going to the Bengals. Any one of those picks, along with a healthy return from 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow would help the Bengals offense take a step forward. But if you're hoping for Mixon to take his own big leap, Sewell is the obvious choice you should be rooting for. Chase and Pitts would help make this a more dangerous passing offense, but would also obviously represent more competition for touches, especially near the goal line. Sewell, on the other hand, could help shore up the line and boost the passing game, while also helping create more opportunities for Mixon directly. Anyone who watched the Bengals last season could probably agree that the line is the bigger need at this point. 

But the point is, a better environment would make Mixon a better Fantasy player, and things seem to be aligning in his favor right now. With Bernard out of the way and an assumed improvement in the Bengals offense, Mixon would seem to be in position to make a leap. Whether he would belong among the elites of the running back position is a different question, though if I did give Mixon 75 targets, it would be enough to make him RB7 in my projections, a borderline first-round pick. 

Of course, the addition of another running back would cloud things, and you have to assume the Bengals will make some kind of addition to a depth chart that features just Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams and Jacques Patrick behind him. Whether that will just be a more talented true backup or someone in the Bernard mold who will push Mixon off the field on third downs and limit his passing game work remains to be seen. But right now, the arrow is pointing up for Mixon. 

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