How Bengals can make most of Joe Mixon's $48M extension

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CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon spent the offseason being publicly silent and sending cryptic Tweets that were up for interpretation.

The picture he sent before Tuesday's practice left little to the imagination. It was a selfie that featured Mixon, smiling and throwing up the peace sign as he stood with members of the Brown family -- executive vice president Katie Blackburn, VP of player personnel Paul Brown and Elizabeth Blackburn, the director of strategy and engagement.

Mixon, 24, and the Bengals agreed Tuesday to a four-year, $48 million contract extension, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The deal ends an offseason of uncertainty regarding the running back. By coming to terms 12 days before the start of the season, the franchise avoided a messy labor dispute in rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's first year as the starter.

Here comes the tricky part: Now the Bengals have to find the best way to maximize that deal. That likely will require Mixon to become more of a receiving target for Burrow.

"He can do just about everything you need him to do," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said of Mixon in August. "And so, finding ways to get him some touches in the pass game are some of the things that we've looked at and studied, and ways to do that better than we did last year."

Mixon was sparsely used in the Bengals' air attack in coach Zac Taylor's first season in Cincinnati. In 2019, Mixon had 45 targets, good for 28th among running backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. To put that in perspective, fellow Bengals running back Giovani Bernard had 43 targets -- and he played 211 fewer snaps.

Mixon's value has been in the ground game as he showed in the second half of the season. After the Bengals ripped up their rushing scheme midway through the year, Mixon closed 2019 with 817 rushing yards in the final eight games. Tennessee's Derrick Henry was the only player with more during that time span.

However, teams with a 1,000-yard rusher like Mixon don't necessarily win big. Over the past three years, one player in the Super Bowl topped 1,000 yards rushing -- the Rams' Todd Gurley in the 2018 season.

Coincidentally, that was Taylor's final year as an assistant in Los Angeles before he was hired as Cincinnati's coach. And while Gurley was effective on the ground in 2018, he was also plenty capable through the air. That season, Gurley ranked ninth in targets and fifth in receiving yards per target among all running backs.

In 2019, Mixon had his moments to display his skills as a receiver. In a Week 10 game against the Raiders, he turned a quick pass into a 17-yard gain. However, Mixon dropped a pass near the far sideline that could have resulted in a touchdown.

And leading into that game last season, Mixon was frustrated by the lack of production. He said he would love to see a scenario in which he carries the ball 25-30 times a game.

"You see these teams running the ball, they're going heavy," Mixon said on Nov. 4. "They're going two tight ends, linemen, fullback in front, and they're being successful. They're controlling the play clock.

"They're controlling the game and it's working. Yes, I would love to see that."

Mixon also admitted running the ball with receiver-heavy packages could work, as shown by Gurley's 2018 Rams. That year, the Rams scored 22 rushing touchdowns in three-receiver alignments, by far the most in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

If Taylor and the Bengals can find ways to make Mixon effective through the air, they will be getting the most out of a running back who will make an average of $12 million per year. That's slated to rank sixth among all running backs in 2021, according to ESPN's Roster Management System.

Mixon has also found ways to provide value in other ways. Even though he wasn't participating in Sunday's intrasquad scrimmage, he made his presence known on the sideline.

"He's always got great energy," Taylor said. "It reminds me of last training camp during the preseason games when he wasn't getting a lot of carries and he was right there next to me."

It appears Mixon and the Bengals will share a sideline for the foreseeable future. And in an era when the value of a running back is in question, the Bengals showed how much Mixon means to their future during the Burrow era.

"You pay players," Bengals player personnel director Duke Tobin told ESPN in March. "You pay individuals. And if they're important to you, then they are guys you want to maintain, regardless of the position."