2022 Bengals Backfield Breakdown: Joey and the Pussycats

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

The 2022 Bengals Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Team Rushing Volume

The Cincinnati Bengals ran the ball 436 times last season, finishing No. 19 in the NFL in total attempts. They actually finished No. 19 in 2020 as well, and the No. 25 finish they had in 2019 means they’ve been a slightly below-average team in raw rushing volume in every year of the Zac Taylor era.

Early on in Taylor’s tenure, those low rushing numbers were mostly a product of the Bengals simply being bad. But that has shifted since they drafted Joe Burrow. According to rbsdm.com, Cincinnati was No. 12 in the league in run rate in early down, neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent) in 2019. They’ve been among the bottom ten teams in the NFL in the same category in 2020 and 2021.

Further evidence of their recent pass-happy ways is the fact that they’ve run the ball less often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) in most down-and-distance situations, as well as more often than expected overall.

The Bengals have a good quarterback and good skill position players. And they just invested heavily in their offensive line via free agency after going to the Super Bowl. They should be a good team again in 2022. And while we should expect them to continue letting Burrow sling it, they should be nursing enough late leads that a league-average finish in rushing attempts doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Efficiency Numbers

Joe Mixon has been the clear lead back in Cincy for a few years now. But three other guys, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans, and Trayveon Williams, also toted the rock for the Bengals in 2021. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of them:

While Mixon had the lowest raw yards per carry average of the team’s top three runners while also seeing the third-lightest box counts on the team, he was a quality runner last year. The Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating he posted is a 67th-percentile mark among league-wide runners in the last six years. And his Relative Success Rate lands in the 71st-percentile. Since 2016, only 14 other players have posted a 200-carry season with BAE Ratings and RSRs both above the 65th-percentile. Mixon (also in 2018 and 2019) and Derrick Henry (2018-20) have each done it three times. Jonathan Taylor¬†(2020-21) is the only other guy to do it more than once.

Perine gets a bad rap as a disappointing plodder. While I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that characterization, he was legitimately good last year. His RSR shows that he wasn’t super consistent. But he saw relatively heavy box counts and was much more efficient than the other guys on the team anyway. His BAE Rating is an 89th-percentile mark.

It’s hard to draw conclusions about the performances of Evans and Williams given that they saw such light work. On less than 20 carries each, they were essentially the opposite of each other. Evans offered boom-bust production against mostly light fronts. And Williams was consistent but not dynamic against very heavy fronts.

So Now What?

You could make a good argument for Joe Mixon being among the few best pure runners in the league. While he turns 26 this July, he doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

It’s tough to trust running backs past age-25. But Mixon’s dynasty valuation hasn’t fallen off too much. Per DLF startup ADP from March, he’s currently selected as the RB9 and the 22nd player overall in single-QB drafts. Per KTC, he’s the RB7 and the 33rd overall player in Superflex.

That’s rich for a dude on the wrong side of the age apex. But Mixon is still good, and the dynasty RB landscape isn’t great right now. Many of the league’s best backs are around Mixon’s age, and the talented young guys are mostly unproven.

If I’m nitpicking, I’d take Mixon over Alvin Kamara. Though Kamara is currently selected ahead of him in DLF startups. At this point in their careers, Mixon is a better player in a better situation, and he’s a year younger. I’d also be willing to move off of Christian McCaffrey or Austin Ekeler in order to acquire Mixon-plus. He’s younger than both, doesn’t have McCaffrey’s recent, extensive injury issues, is in a better offense than McCaffrey, and has a role that feels more insulated against potential touch competition than Ekeler.

The other guys on the Bengals are appropriately not valued very highly. Chris Evans and Trayveon Williams are JAGs who probably don’t deserve more volume than what they’ve seen thus far in their careers. Samaje Perine might be an underrated handcuff. But I could also easily see his role getting stolen by one of the many solid backs in this rookie class.

Elijah Holyfield and Pooka Williams are also currently under contract on reserve/future deals. But don’t worry yourself over them.

Final Word

The Bengals are a good team with a good offense. Joe Mixon should be able to take advantage of that situation as one of the league’s best running backs. He’s slightly underpriced relative to other similarly-aged runners in dynasty.