By Willie Lutz
Closing the regular season with a convincing 33-23 victory over the listless Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals closed their first run with Zac Taylor at head coach with a 2-14 record and a whole lot of questions left to answer. Granted, the close of the regular season now brings the season of change for this organization.
While the Bengals have plenty of structural reloading to do across this roster, with changes being needed in just about every position category, the team has to decide how the foundation of their team progresses with two key contracts this offseason; A.J. Green and Joe Mixon.
Both players have also made their interest in remaining Bengals-for-life pretty clear, especially for Green who’s modeled his career after Arizona Cardinals-lifer Larry Fitzgerald.
If it comes down to a pick-em, it seems relatively clear that Mixon will carry the day.
Certainly, a “why not both” reality exists, as the $17.7 million owed to QB Andy Dalton, $11.1 million owed to CB Dre Kirkpatrick, and $9.5 million owed to LT Cordy Glenn in 2020 could very easily come off the books at some point early in this offseason. Despite the ability to make up the money, the team may decide it’s one or the other; if it comes down to a pick-em, it seems relatively clear that Mixon will carry the day.
Here’s how Mixon and Green have fared over the past two seasons:
- Joe Mixon: 30 games, 2,305 rushing yards, 96.3 total yards per game, 17 total touchdowns, 4.5 yards per rushing attempt.
- A.J. Green: 9 games (none since Week 13 of 2018), 694 receiving yards, 77.1 receiving yards per game, 6 touchdowns, 15.1 yards per catch, 9 yards per target.
Both have the ability to post league-leading numbers in addition to both being complete game-changers when at the top of their game. While it’s been 395 days since we’ve seen Green play football and 437 days since he posted his last 100-plus yard receiving game, what Bengals fans have seen A.J. do in Cincinnati over his eight-year career is plenty convincing.
Going into the offseason, everyone in and around the organization is pretty aware that the team’s star running back will plan to hold out for a new contract before the final year of his rookie deal in 2020. Considering Mixon attempted a hold out before the 2019 season, it seems inevitable that the running back will match his colleagues’ tactics and try to push for a healthy pile of cash from the Cincinnati Bengals.
It’s not to say that Mixon will have a big drop in production, but typically players in his position group tend to start falling off around the age of 27.
Recent changes in football spending wisdom have pointed out the inefficiencies of signing running backs to a second contract, as the burn-out factor has frequently out-weighed the value of the deal. It’s not to say that Mixon will have a big drop in production, but typically players in his position group tend to start falling off around the age of 27.
Here’s what’s resulted for the bank accounts of other top running backs around the league who’ve held out for more money:
- Ezekiel Elliot, Dallas Cowboys: Held out all of training camp, signed a six-year, $90 million ($28 million guaranteed) contract on Sept. 4, allowing him to rush ahead for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns on 4.5 yards-per-carry during the 2019 season.
- Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets: Sat out for entire 2018 season with Pittsburgh Steelers, signed four-year, $52.5 million ($35 million guaranteed) with Jets in Summer 2019.
- Melvin Gordon, LA Chargers: Skipped training camp, returned to Chargers in Week 5, finishing the season with 8 touchdowns and a career-low 612 yards on 3.8 yards per attempt.
As the NFL acts as something of a fraternity or perhaps a very specialized networking organization, Joe Mixon is certainly friends with a lot of the other top-flight running backs in the league who’ve recently held out for more cash. Considering Mixon ranks somewhere in the top three-to-five runners in the league, his contract seems more likely to resemble a lofty salary like Elliot’s deal from Dallas and less like the front-loaded deal Bell received from New York.
Green will be more of a specialized case; he’s the face of the franchise in a lot of ways and certainly has the healthiest jersey share of any player currently on the team.
Green will be more of a specialized case; he’s the face of the franchise in a lot of ways and certainly has the healthiest jersey share of any player currently on the team. Walking around the Paul Brown Stadium tailgate lots, you’ll find exponentially more #18 jerseys than #28, #14, or #85 (Ochocinco and Eifert) on the backs of fans.
Over the course of his time in Cincinnati, this fanbase has seen a lot more winning when Green is on the field than when he’s off; the Bengals are 66-48-1 with A.J. on the field and 7-21-1 when he doesn’t check into the game. He was also the best player on the team during their five-straight runs to the playoffs from 2011-2015. Making seven appearances in the Pro Bowl and being named to three Second-Team All-Pro squads, Green has been a talisman of greatness in his 111 starts at wide receiver in Cincinnati.
The Bengals are 66-48-1 with A.J. on the field and 7-21-1 when he doesn’t check into the game.
What’ll be interesting to monitor in A.J.’s contract negotiation will be his complete disgust at the concept of playing under the franchise tag. If the team does decide to tag the star wide receiver, it seems like that it would only be to drum up a trade asset so they don’t lose him without some sort of return. In a major market, Green would’ve likely been traded at the deadline for a few nice draft assets, but Cincinnati doesn’t operate with that sort of mindset.
Certainly, the organization has to consider the value of having both players around for the development of what’ll be April’s first-overall pick in the draft in LSU’s Joe Burrow. The incoming quarterback will strongly benefit from having a talented arsenal of receiving options during his first season in the NFL, as both Green and Mixon have the ability to lift great pressure off of their quarterback.