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Why 2021 season will play big role in Joe Mixon's future with Bengals

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CINCINNATI -- One of the Cincinnati Bengals' most important players worked under the radar during organized team activities.

Running back Joe Mixon, who signed a four-year extension last season worth $48 million, sported one of the Bengals' new white practice jerseys while running through drills at the practice field across from Paul Brown Stadium. Mixon has kept a low profile since he suffered an undisclosed foot injury last season.

But according to accounts from coaches and teammates, it appears as though Mixon has fully recovered.

That’s a good sign as he approaches a very important fifth season which will indicate whether the long-term investment into Mixon, who will be 25 in July, was justified.

“We've seen really good things from Joe,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said on May 25 at the start of the three-week OTA period. “I think he would have had a fantastic year last year, had he stayed healthy, and that's the expectation for him this year.”

Taylor pointed out that Mixon was having a strong season before his final game in Week 6 against Indianapolis. The raw numbers certainly suggest that. Through the first five weeks of last season, Mixon ranked seventh among running backs in rushing yards and trailed only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry in total attempts.

But a closer look at the numbers when Mixon was healthy suggest he was inefficient.

According to NFL Next Gen, Mixon had 29 fewer rushing yards than expected and had the sixth-worst success rate among running backs with at least 50 carries. Mixon was also 31st among 35 qualifying running backs in yards per attempt (3.6) during that span.

These numbers could be a byproduct of the Bengals' struggles on the offensive line. Cincinnati addressed the unit this offseason by signing tackle Riley Reiff, drafting guard Jackson Carman in the second round and, most importantly, hiring Frank Pollack as the offensive line coach. Pollack's wide-zone blocking scheme could help Mixon thrive.

In 2019, Mixon tweeted out frustration when the Bengals let Pollack go after the 2018 season, as longtime head coach Marvin Lewis parted ways with the franchise. When Taylor brought Pollack back this offseason and also made him the run game coordinator, Mixon sent a tweet that said it was "time we got my dawg back."

Of course, running alone won’t make Mixon as valuable as he needs to be.

The Bengals released Giovani Bernard this offseason and cleared more salary-cap space. Bernard was Mixon’s primary backup and the go-to back for third downs.

In Mixon’s six games, he was on the field for 24 third downs, which ranked tied for 18th among qualifying running backs. Of the six active running backs making more than $10 million per year last season on their current contracts, Mixon trailed the entire group, aside from Henry, in third-down snaps.

With Bernard gone, that third-down responsibility likely will be shared between Mixon and veteran Samaje Perine, who signed a two-year deal in March. How many third downs Mixon plays could depend on his overall snap count and the yards needed in each situation.

“Having Joe Mixon on the field makes us better,” Taylor said. “At the same time, you don’t need him on the field for 75 snaps a game.”

But it could also hinge on his pass protection, an area for improvement previously referenced by offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.

“I don’t want Joe [Mixon] to leave the field, personally,” Callahan said on the final day of April’s NFL draft. “And I think he’s up to that challenge. He has some things he has to improve pass protection-wise. Joe shouldn’t come off the field -- he should be on the field every down. He’s aware of that.”

Mixon has not spoken to the media since his injury last season and declined requests during the three-week OTA period.

Estimating Mixon’s usage this season is tricky because of the Bengals’ roster management in recent drafts. After drafting quarterback Joe Burrow with the top overall pick in 2020, they used premium draft picks on receivers Ja'Marr Chase (first round, 2021) and Tee Higgins (second round, 2020). Don’t forget about slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who carries the highest salary-cap value of any offensive player on Cincinnati’s roster.

Mixon's extension, which runs through 2024, came after he had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for two bad teams. That contract came with the hope that he could be a key piece for the Bengals moving forward.

Cincinnati could have a decision to make about its future if Mixon struggles to produce at the necessary level. The Bengals will take an $8.25 million hit in dead money if they part with Mixon in 2022 but will get $3.2 million in salary cap savings, according to Over the Cap.

Of course, the best scenario for the Bengals is the one they’re hoping for: Mixon performs like one of the best running backs in the NFL. Whether that happens could be a big inflection point for a franchise hoping its rebuilding days are over.