Changes coming to Bengals’ running back room?

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Mixon’s future was up in the air last offseason, and the Cincinnati Bengals ended up negotiating a pay cut to keep the veteran running back for a seventh season.

His role with the team continues to be a talking point one year later, as the Bengals evaluate their roster ahead of free agency and the NFL Draft, but director of player personnel Duke Tobin did not shed any light on the organization’s plans at that position when asked about it at the NFL Combine this week.

The Bengals will owe Mixon an additional $3 million in bonuses if Mixon is still on the roster March 18, and his $8.85 million cap hit is a hefty charge at a position where teams typically are able to go younger and cheaper.

“I can tell you his role this past year was good,” Tobin said. “He had a really good season for us. I was proud of him over a thousand yards and double-digit touchdowns, and it was a big factor for us. In terms of predicting anybody’s role going forward. I’m not going to do that up here on the podium. Those are roster-building strategies and those are things that we’re talking through as this whole thing unfolds with every player on our roster. It’s not specific to just one. Really proud of Joe in the season he had, and he did a lot of things to help us get into a point where we had a chance. We didn’t get over the hump, but he put us in a position to have a chance.”

Cincinnati at least has to be considering moving on from Mixon. The Bengals had the fifth most cap space invested in the running back room last year and also could benefit from a more explosive option to help take the offense to the next level.

If they do want to move on from Mixon, that decision is likely to come before March 18 when his roster bonus kicks in, but Tobin said that “doesn’t complicate” the process.

“We put it in there for a reason, and his agent wanted it in there for a reason,” Tobin said. “But again, from our strategy standpoint and what we intend to do, I’m not going to get into that with any of our players. But yeah, he does have an early roster bonus.”

Mixon topped 1,000 yards rushing for the fourth time in his career last season, and he was a Pro Bowl running back in 2021.

However, Cincinnati’s offense has been headed in a new direction since the organization drafted Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase as the foundation. Mixon isn’t great in pass protection. He’s not a three-down back, and he’s not the type to often find a burst on the outside, which the Bengals eventually leaned on Chase Brown for as the season progressed last year. More importantly, at age 27, he’s not getting any faster.

Cincinnati used the draft to add speed last year with Brown. The Bengals also could look at free agents this year if needed, and there also could be another hole to fill with Trayveon Williams heading into free agency.

“There’s certain things you’re looking for in your running back room,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked about the challenges of evaluating running backs in his offense. “It doesn’t always have to be from one running back. You’re looking for guys that can carry the load on first, second down and you’re looking for guys that can be threats coming out of the backfield. You’re looking for guys that can pass protect. You’re looking for guys that can do all three of those things. So, it doesn’t always have to be one guy that can do all that. You can piece it together and we’ve done that in the past before. And so, I think as you look at all the running backs are available in the draft, we’ll consider all that stuff as we figure out where we want to go with our room.”

Asked what his ideal running game looks like, Taylor didn’t share his preference. He said it depends on the personnel and what is working in training camp, but he will have a better idea coming out of the offseason. Brown could be a bigger part of the plans next year, though he won’t be the only answer.

Brown was the team’s fifth-round pick last year, and despite being used sparingly and then facing a setback due to injury his rookie season, he showed well in the limited opportunities he had. In 12 games, he produced 179 yards rushing on 44 carries and added 156 yards receiving and one touchdown catch.

Taylor said the plan last year was to ease Brown in and make sure he understood the protections for early matchups against Cleveland and Baltimore. By the time they felt he was ready, he had pulled his hamstring in practice and missed four weeks.

“The second he came back we integrated him right back in there and he did some good things for us, so I certainly think a whole season’s worth of that is going to be exciting to watch,” Taylor said. “You talk about a consistent approach, Chase Brown has done that. You see him in there every day doing extra stuff. He’ll prepare himself for the opportunities that he can get and I’m really excited to watch what Chase’s career is going to be like for us.”

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