The biggest remaining question mark surrounding the Bengals offseason was answered on Sunday when they finalized a four-year, $48 million contract extension with running back Joe Mixon.
The Bengals' brass has gushed about Mixon's ability all offseason, so it comes as no surprise that they paid one of their most important playmakers.
Unfortunately, he is a running back, and if recent contract history tells us anything, it's that teams shouldn't allocate big money to that position. From Todd Gurley to David Johnson, or Devonta Freeman and even Ezekiel Elliott. These deals end up hamstringing future decisions that have a greater impact on winning.
Despite what some frustrated fans might think, the Bengals have typically handled the cap judiciously and they clearly know the risk they are taking. They now have Mixon signed through his most impactful years and have a built-in team option for the final season (2024).
That means the Bengals are committed to Mixon through the 2023 season. Should Mixon get injured or find himself in hot water off the field, the Bengals can cut bait after the 2021 season and swallow $6 million in dead cap.
Mixon is now the sixth-most expensive running back by average annual value, while being one of four ballcarriers to eclipse 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of the past two seasons. He's suited up in 44 of a possible 48 career games and was only tackled behind the line of scrimmage 30 times on 278 carries last year.
Athletic prime, clean injury history, and a palatable cap hit, if this contract is regretted down the line it'll be from misuse by the coaching staff, not poor financial planning.
Now that the Bengals added the first player to their 2024 salary cap sheet fans might be worried that the pot of money won't be big enough for guys like Carl Lawson, William Jackson III, John Ross, and Sam Hubbard.
Two words: rookie quarterback.
The Bengals rank 25th in positional spending at that spot and they'll stay in the bottom ten until it's time to extend Joe Burrow. When a team has that much flexibility with the cap, a running back deal like Mixon's becomes much easier to work around. If the Bengals need to create cap space next offseason, they can make moves to do so. Cincinnati could create $21.3 million in space next year by cutting an aging Carlos Dunlap, Bobby Hart and Giovani Bernard. That would give the Bengals extra space to pay some of the young guys.
The Bengals are going to have some tough decisions to make in 2021. They'll likely have to choose between investing in Ross or retaining A.J. Green long-term. On top of that, it will be hard to justify spending $17.1 million on their running back room, which would be the second highest paid in the league behind Dallas. Bernard is arguably the least efficient running back in the league. Mixon posted the best PFF pass-blocking grade of his career (64.6) last season, which could make Bernard expendable next offseason.
Cincinnati might've learned their lesson after past failures. The decision to let Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth walk in 2017 destroyed the Andy Dalton era and put a ceiling on Mixon's production along the way. Not many humans on earth could've eclipsed 4.3 yards per carry behind this line over the past two years, but Mixon was successful enough to secure the bag.
Now the Bengals hope an improving roster and motivated coaching staff gets the most out of Mixon as he enters his prime.
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