The last two running backs the Cincinnati Bengals spent high draft picks on – Giovani Bernard in the second round in 2013 and Jeremy Hill in the second round in 2014 – saw a slight dip in production in their second seasons.
But 2017 second-round pick Joe Mixon is hoping to reverse that trend this year.
Mixon ran for just 626 yards with a 3.5 average as a rookie due in large part to the fact that he spent the first half of the season in a three-man rotation. And even after Hill had season-ending ankle surgery, Mixon still was running behind a struggling offensive line.
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There should be more carries and more holes in 2018.
And if offensive coordinator Bill Lazor get his wish, there will be more to Mixon’s game as well.
“The thing I wanted to challenge Joe to be is a complete back, to be able to do everything,” Lazor said this week during the team’s mandatory minicamp.
“And I think he has the talent to do that,” Lazor added. “He has the smarts to do it. He wants to do it. So that’s his challenge.”
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One thing that has never been a challenge for Mixon is exuding confidence, which is why he bristled some when told of Lazor’s comment.
“I don’t know where he gets that from,” Mixon said. “Honestly, I feel like I’m already a complete back. If you ask anybody on the team, I feel like everybody else on the team would say the same thing.
“I really feel like if they use me in the right way, which I feel like they’re going to do, I feel like they’ll see that I’m a complete back. I mean, they didn’t bring me here for nothing. So I’m sure Kyle (Caskey, the running backs coach) has seen something, Mr. (Mike) Brown’s seen something and hopefully Lazor sees the same thing.”
Lazor said asking more from Mixon is just part of player development, which is one of the most enjoyable parts of coaching.
“That’s always fun when you’re a coach and you lay it out front for him that hey we’re going to help you do the things you don’t do well and keep challenging them and challenging them,” Lazor said. “When you’re a rookie back that’s part of a rookie backfield where, at some point, we had three guys playing, some of the more intricate things go to the veterans because there’s only so many reps.
“So you watch them, you learn from them,” Lazor continued. “Whether it’s a multitude of different kind of runs. Whether it’s the different specialty plays. Whether it’s the passing game, protection and running the routes. You just list it all, and you say ‘OK, if you’re as talented as we thought when we brought you in and you’re a smart guy, let’s do it all. Let’s have all that stuff in your toolbox.’ I’m really excited for him.”
In addition to rushing for 646 yards and four touchdowns last year, Mixon caught 30 passes for 287 yards.
At Thursday’s final day of minicamp, he was showing off is skills as a receiver with a couple of one-handed grabs. One came in the end zone on a high-arcing fade, the other a faster pass across the middle.
“I’ve been doing that,” he said. “That ain’t nothing new to what I do.”
The challenge from Lazor, and head coach Marvin Lewis, isn’t so much about improving physical skills as it the intangibles that help transform good players to great ones.
“I think Joe can give us everything,” Lewis said. “His role will be more expanded and we feel good about that.
“Joe has been great since the day he walked in this door, his effort, his energy,” Lewis continued. “Now he’s in his sophomore season, so his attention to detail, he understands that’s got to be better and that’s good.”