By: Kai Brewer
I’m here to throw a cold bucket of water on something that’s getting a little out of hand. The newest addition to the Bengal backfield, Joe Mixon is going way too high in redraft leagues. Off-field issues aside, Mixon is clearly a talented running back, and you can check out how all of that factors into drafting him from a previous article by Rich Torres However, some of us seem to have forgotten what happens to rookie running backs, just about every single year.
In the Past
Going from college to the NFL game is obviously very hard, and it takes time to adjust and learn a brand new offense on top of everything else going on in these young men’s lives. This is why rookie RBs, barring injury, tend to be more productive in the second half of the season. Common sense, right? Drafters sometimes fail to take into account that the 32 NFL teams know that too. More opportunities are given to rookies in terms of carries and involvement in the offense as the season progresses. Bruce Arians famously said in reference to Cardinals 2015 rookie David Johnson on Season 1 of All or Nothing, “I think he can be a bell-cow by Thanksgiving.” Not Week 1, Thanksgiving. And, it took 2 injuries to even make that happen.
Johnson averaged 9.37 more carries and 6.55 more fantasy points per game in the second half of the 2015 season than the first. Well, that’s just one case. But just last year, Chicago’s Jordan Howard averaged 5.36 more carries and 3.87 more fantasy points per game in his 2nd half. Jeremy Hill’s rookie season saw him have 9.25 more carries and 3.79 more points in 2014, and so on, and so on. Now, these might just seem like arbitrary backs, but they’re not. These are the top rookie finishers in fantasy each of the last three years not named Zeke or Gurley. (First round picks are a whole different story, but we’ll get to that.) All of them had better second halves of their freshman campaigns, and all of them had more opportunities.
In fact, the 16 rookie running backs archived in Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP history from 2014-2016 average a 45% increase in carries per game in the second half of their seasons. They also average 22% more fantasy points per game. You might be thinking, “But running back X only got more work because running back Y was the starter, and he got hurt.” That is sometimes true, like in the case of David Johnson, Devontae Booker, and Jeremy Hill, but it actually helps prove my point. Even running backs like Derrick Henry, who did not have injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, had a 43% increase in carries and an 85% increase in fantasy points per game in the second half of his rookie season. It is also well documented that running backs take a pounding more than any other position and sustain more injuries as a result. More backs get hurt as the season goes on, and more rookies get opportunities to play as a result.
Why Does This Matter For Joe Mixon?
As with the vast majority of other rookies, Mixon will be better in the second half of 2017. This means you’re better off waiting to use him until then. Just because a running back finishes in the top 25, doesn’t mean he they were usable every week of the season. Even the best rookie seasons in recent memory didn’t start off that way. Jordan Howard started the season with 5 weeks in the top 25 and had 8 to close the season. David Johnson went from 4 to 6, and Jeremy Hill went from 3 to 7. Again, some might point to injuries, but again, that’s a major part of fantasy football. Last season alone, 92 combined games were missed by starting RBs, and that doesn’t even count the committees in NE, PHI, CIN, JAX, DET, and SEA. As the season progresses, rookies get more comfortable with the playbook, veterans get hurt and said rookies get more opportunities to play. It happens every year.
Mixon is currently being drafted 58th overall on Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP and as the 24th running back. History tells us most 2nd to 7th round picks will start the season as, at best, a FLEX option for 8 weeks, and finish as an RB2. Standard Fantasy Football is about winning your given matchup as many weeks as possible and punching your ticket to the playoffs. Guys like Howard, Johnson, and Hill were league winners if you had them for the playoffs in their rookie seasons, but obviously not if you didn’t make the playoffs in the first place. Even knowing what they did, you would never draft them as your RB2 in their given draft because you could not confidently start them in the first half of the season. Even if Mixon’s the best rookie in this class, which is not a certainty, it’s still not worth it.
Why Are First Rounders Different?
To return draft day value at his 24th RB price, Mixon would need to finish no lower than 24th for the season right? In 2016, only Ezekiel Elliot(a 1st round draft pick) and Jordan Howard did so among rookies. In 2015, it was Todd Gurley(1st round pick), David Johnson, and Jeremy Langford(23rd). Only Jeremy Hill, Andre Williams(21st), and Tre Mason(22nd) did in 2014. Of the 16 rookie running backs archived in Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP history from 2014-2016, only 3 have finished top 24, and 2 of them were first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
First round picks need to be accounted for separately because their team is highly invested and gives them far more opportunities to succeed than other rookies get. From 2012-2016, rookies drafted in Round 1 averaged 18.54 touches per game in their rookie seasons(21.25 without David Wilson). While 93 other RBs were drafted over that same span. Of those 93, only Le’Veon Bell (23.85), Eddie Lacy (21.87), Jordan Howard (20.13), and Zac Stacy (20.36) had an average above that. 4/93. So, I have no problem with someone drafting Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette or Carolina’s Christian McCaffery as their RB2. History shows they will get plenty of opportunities this year to succeed.
So Where Do You Take Him Then?
With less opportunity than 1st round picks Fournette and McCaffery, no other rookie backs deserve a 5th or 6th round draft slot in fantasy. You can, however, talk me into a 7th or 8th round price. If the preseason rolls around, and Mixon is dubbed the starter over Jeremy Hill, who remember has been a top 20 fantasy back every year of his career, we can revisit this conversation. Until then, I’d much rather have Dalvin Cook 10 RBs, and 2 rounds later, who was also a second-round pick, also has potential offensive line flaws and also has a limited quarterback. I just can’t pass up WRs like Julian Edelman and Golden Tate, or even more proven RBs with just as much upside like LeGarrette Blount, Bilal Powell, or even Dalvin Cook at Mixon’s ADP. All that being said, I think Mixon is a great talent with huge potential, but as of now, we will need to wait and see how the Bengals choose to utilize their new toy in their backfield.