Give the Bengals credit. They've spent more money than you think the past decade, and tried to spend even more this offseason than they were able to, losing out on a few free agents in the end but making significant offers.
Which tells you that Mike Brown still has some wiggle room in his budget. Of course, the specter of potentially playing a truncated season, with no fans, is suboptimal and tends to make owners hesitant to reach in their pockets any further than they already have. But the fact the Bengals have been willing to engage in contract talks with star running back Joe Mixon is a tangible sign of their wiggle room, and a tacit acknowledgment of his unique import to that franchise.
The Bengals should extend Mixon. It should be their priority right now. He is the most important player on that roster not named Joe Burrow. He will be Burrow's best weapon and primary accessory in that offense this season. He is the very rare NFL back in this age of extreme passing who is worth $15M a season or more. He makes a difference all three downs and will be a savior of sorts this season with so many young, new parts trying to hold the Bengals attack together.
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Mixon is a beast in pass protection, one of the game's elite talents running in the open field and an absolute terror as an air back, catching screens and swing passes and turning them into game altering sequences. Factor in that Burrow is a rookie, he hasn't been around the team at all, there will only be two weeks of padded practices and no preseason games before the regular season begins and the Bengals play in one of the better divisions in football – oh yeah, and their defense may well stink again – and it is easy to see why Mixon may be in line for as much volume and touches as any back in the NFL.
Oh yeah, and big questions remain about the Bengals' revamped offensive line as well. Yikes. Trust me, the running back will be very, very important.
Mixon could be as well positioned as Christian McCaffrey was a year ago to explode. In fact, if there is a full season, I fully anticipate that Mixon will be the Run CMC of the AFC this season. His scrimmage yards, receptions and touchdowns could be off the charts. He is a core piece for the Bengals and I would not flinch at paying him top of the market prices.
You can't chat with coach Zac Taylor for any time and not come away with the distinct sense he truly began to understand and appreciate the ability of this back as last season played out, and intends to lean on him heavily in 2020, especially with an unproven line and raw QB. Go ahead and sign him now. You'll thank me later.
Opt-out deadline comes and goes, but issues aren't over
The NFL's official deadline for players to opt out has passed, but you'd be foolish to think this issue is fully resolved. It's not.
The situation for many players will change as the season goes on, with them facing new health challenges or wanting to expand their families or dealing with elderly relatives. And the health climate within these team facilities could certainly change drastically, as well, from where things stood at 4 p.m. ET last Thursday, when the opt-out deadline passed.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that everything is subject to change, especially in the world of sports, and once players start practicing every day and rubbing up on one another and once schools open in earnest around some parts of the country, the number of positive tests might turn. And if that's the case, players will react; the question is how many and to what degree.
The league will face challenging optics if players, say, in two weeks, with more positive tests, express their discomfort with moving on with the status quo. The situation in MLB, with multiple teams in limbo and some teams not playing for over a week and the Cardinals having players in need of emergency room care for COVID-19-related issues, is not going unnoticed. Any deadline, in regards to an issue like this, is totally arbitrary, and I've talked to execs, agents and players who are far from convinced there will not be circumstances in the coming weeks that will test the agreement these sides reached last month.
"If a player comes to us and says his wife is pregnant and we have multiple positive cases and he wants to leave, how is that going to look?" one AFC exec opined. "Does his contract still toll, even if it's after the opt out deadline? Are we supposed to demand he still report? What if his position coach is sick? There's no way to prepare for everything. Every other sport has had to continue to adapt. We've had a horse show up our (backside) with this to this point, but who knows if that's going to still be the case next month."
College scouting to be 'unlike anything we've ever seen'
Whatever happens in college football – and there has long been a sense among NFL people that the amateur season was in significant peril – most teams have come to grips with the fact that they weren't going to have scouts on the road, anyway.
Even if NCAA teams were only going to practice and not play games until the spring, the front office people I have been talked to figured that sending scouts on campus to try to talk to these players and see them up close would be a moot point. It's always looked like diminishing returns to them, and rethinking how they evaluate players has long been in order.
"These campuses are going to be closed to outsiders for the most part and some won't even really be open at all," said one NFC personnel exec. "And we're going to have guys going all over the country watching them up close and talking to them and watching film in their facilities? I can't see it. We aren't planning on it. I just don't see that happening."
Another exec said: "Scouting as we know it, for this fall, will be totally unlike anything we've ever seen. Not sure how much there will be to see, anyway. We are in limbo, just like these schools."
The scouting community is hoping that, should the NCAA season effectively be scrapped, the NFL would remain open to moving the draft and awaiting what a spring college football season might look like before having to select players. So much could change between now and then. In the pro and college game.