For this match-up we are featuring the showdown of Jerick McKinnon versus Joe Mixon. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, McKinnon is currently being drafted around the 2.8 range and Mixon around the 2.9. On the surface one could see their opportunity as somewhat equal as the shoe-in favorites for their respective team’s workhorse roles. For all intents and purposes it looks like this assertion is being made given their proximity in ADP, however I want to shed light on a few key elements of each player’s situation and explain why I think drafting Jerick McKinnon is the safer play and arguably the one containing more upside.
With Joe Mixon the early narrative is that with Jeremy Hill’s exit, Mixon will be the unquestioned workhorse back. Now, while I agree that he will be given every opportunity to dominate the early down and red zone work, the presence of the Giovani Bernard who is an excellent receiver should not be overlooked. Furthermore Mixon’s 2017 campaign was underwhelming to say the least. In 14 games, he only managed 178 carries and 626 yards on a weak 3.5 yards per carry. He did score 4 of the Bengals’ 6 rushing touchdowns and more goal line work should allow for an increase on that front. I can hear all the Joe Mixon apologists screaming now! “The Bengals’ line was trash! They are much improved!” Ok ok, I hear you. The Bengals drafted Ohio State product: center Billy Price in the first round and and traded with the Buffalo Bills for the services of tackle Cordy Glenn. These are key additions and if they mesh well with the incumbent Cincinnati linemen, they could provide a noticeable boost to the run game. My major concern with Joe Mixon is his work in the passing game, especially as it compares to his understudy Giovani Bernard. Last year in 4 less games Bernard amassed 43 receptions to Mixon’s 30. Given Bernard’s experience and Marvin Lewis’ love for his veterans, I could see a similar breakdown this coming season. If you compare Mixon to the top 15 running back finishes in fantasy football last year there were only two backs to finish with 30 catches or less: Ezekiel Elliott, who only played 10 games due to suspension and Jordan Howard who got nearly 100 more carries than Mixon with 276 and we all know Jordan Howard can’t even catch a cold in the Chicago winter.
Now let’s dive into Jerick McKinnon’s situation. The San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan did their research and hand picked McKinnon to lead their backfield. Not only did they sign him to a 4 year, $30 million deal, $11.7 million of that is guaranteed money for THIS year. NFL contracts usually tell a story and this one is likely saying: “We really like you, and we really really like you THIS year!” San Francisco proved this by not bringing any meaningful running back help in via the draft or free agency. We know this offense was different in the 5 games after Jimmy Garoppolo took over. In fact if we take the stats for the 49er backfield and spread them out over the full season they would have projected to own the 5th best backfield in terms of standard fantasy scoring and the 4th best in terms of PPR scoring. Enter McKinnon, who over the last two years has averaged 47 catches including a career high 51 last year. He also reached a career highs in rushing yards with 570 and receiving yardage with 421. And while we believe that the San Francisco offense will be improved, they still lack the elite talent around him to suggest that McKinnon will not be the focal point of this offense. Shanahan has gushed about Jerick’s tape and all signs point to him getting the keys to the car, especially this season. There is some concern with McKinnon’s prowess as a runner given his average of 3.77 yards per carry last year, but the usage of a dual threat back in a Shanahan-led offense coupled with his ability as a receiver help to ease this concern.
When backed into a Fantasy corner on these two, Jerick McKinnon is the clear choice to make here. McKinnon will be the lead back and the one with the most receiving chops for a Kyle Shanahan offense, which over the last six years has produced a top 15 running back 5 times. Meanwhile you have a Cincinnati offense led by Bill Lazor who was only able to manage 6 rushing touchdowns last year. Additionally Mixon will have to fend off Giovani Bernard for receiving down work. McKinnon not only projects to be the safer play due to the lack of talent behind him but has tremendous upside if he can reach the 20 touch per game average that Devonta Freeman saw under Kyle Shanahan in a similar role.