Why an extension for Joe Mixon is key to Bengals in 2020 and beyond

After a slow start, the Bengals' Joe Mixon finished with 1,137 yards rushing last season. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon said all the right things when his team was winless in 2019.

He toed the line between talking about the lack of touches and complaining about it. By the end of the season, the Bengals put the ball in his hands often, winning two of their final five games for their only wins of the season.

Mixon finished with 1,137 yards rushing, a remarkable feat given the sluggish start to the season (he had 254 yards rushing through the first seven games). He also positioned himself for a contract extension before the final year of his rookie deal in 2020.

Keeping Mixon around for another contract, at whatever cost, could be well worth it for a team likely building around a rookie quarterback, assuming they select Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on April 23. Mixon's value isn't lost on Cincinnati's front office, which is already exploring the idea of giving him a new deal before the start of the season.

"He's an important guy to us," Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin told ESPN in February. "We'll see where it goes, but he's a guy that we value."

Mixon, who will be 24 at the start of the season, could be the latest running back to receive a significant payday. Last March, the New York Jets' Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year deal worth $52.5 million, with $35 million guaranteed. That came a year after the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million guaranteed.

But big money doesn't guarantee big production. Last season, two players ranked among the top 15 in total rushing averaged more than $5 million a year -- the Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Leonard Fournette.

When asked about the value of paying a running back big money, Tobin said: "You pay players. You pay individuals. And if they're important to you, then they are guys you want to maintain, regardless of the position."

Gurley earned his deal when Bengals coach Zac Taylor was an assistant in Los Angeles. In 2018, Taylor's final year with the Rams, they showed there is room for a vibrant passing game and rushing attack to coexist. The Rams were third in total rushing and fourth in passing yards per attempt.

When Taylor arrived in Cincinnati, Mixon enjoyed the idea of being in a system similar to the one Gurley had success in.

"As long as I'm in great condition, I feel like I'll thrive in this offense," Mixon said in August. "I feel like that's for everybody. Coach Taylor, he uses all his weapons."

Soon Taylor could have a major new piece in his arsenal. All signs point toward the Bengals taking Burrow with the top overall pick in the draft. He won the Heisman Trophy last fall, set the record for most passing touchdowns by an FBS quarterback (60) and led LSU to a national championship.

While Burrow torched defenses all season, LSU also showed how versatile a running back can be in a dynamic offense. The Tigers were 60th in the NCAA in total rushing, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire was second in the SEC in all-purpose yards.

Why? He was third among all Power 5 running backs in receiving yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burrow's arrival and the implementation of some of the concepts he ran at LSU could mean Mixon is used more in the passing attack. Last year, Mixon ranked 21st among running backs in routes run, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Mixon embraced an increased workload in the rushing and passing attacks last season. He wants to do his part to turn the Bengals into a playoff contender again.

"When we come back we have to be ready," Mixon said in December. "I'm going to put that on myself to make sure that we will be. I look forward to going into the offseason getting better. I know I will and we will."