Breakout seasons happen every year in the NFL, on every team. Players on the back ends of their respective rosters put together respectable, job-securing seasons. Serviceable players become competitive assets. Known-commodity starters become something more. It’s all an inherent part of the NFL and why it’s so interesting to watch.
On a franchise like the Bengals – known for their stability over anything else – it’s hard to identify breakout candidates. Typically, these players emerge as a result of some change to their situation. Regardless, there are still guys on each side of the ball that are poised for potential breakout seasons.
Here are three such players from the Bengals’ offense.
Joe Mixon, HB
There’s perhaps no more obvious breakout candidate on the entire Bengals roster than Joe Mixon. After opening his rookie season as a rotational piece, behind Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, Mixon was handed the keys to the starting job when Bill Lazor became the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. While his on-field production wasn’t always staggering, the talent that made Mixon a high draft pick was undeniable. Heading into 2018, Mixon figures to be a focal point of the Bengals’ offense.
The question, firstly, is how productive he can be. Blocking will be a big part of that – and the situation on the right side of the Bengals’ offensive line is unsettled. The left side, at least, is not – which is more than Mixon had going for him in 2017. Cordy Glenn, Clint Boling, and rookie Billy Price should consistently open lanes for Mixon if they all remain healthy. On the right, Mixon has the tools to help as a dynamic chip-and-release receiver, mitigating the impact of opposing blitzes.
The other question is how the backfield behind him pans out. Heading into the draft, Mixon looked like the bell-cow of this unit, with Gio Bernard as the receiving back and Brian Hill as the special teams anchor. Then, the Bengals drafted Mark Walton in the fourth round. While not a threat to take Mixon’s job outright, it’s hard to peg what Walton’s role will be at this stage of the offseason.
John Ross, WR
Like Mixon, John Ross is a bit of an obvious candidate. For a player with a rookie season as dismal as Ross’ was, any consistent production would be a vast improvement. That’s not where the bar for ‘breakout’ is, but Ross was drafted in the first round for a reason. He’s capable of being a lot more for the Bengals in his second year.
Some might profile Ross as a burner – which he is. He can take the top off of a defense, which helps to open up in-breaking routes for other receivers. For a quarterback like Andy Dalton, who excels in the short-to-intermediate game between the numbers, that’s vital.
But Ross and his speed can be used in other, more immediately useful, ways. The threat of Ross outrunning the defense opens up route options – slants, screens, and double moves chiefly among them. Ross doesn’t have to bump outside and allow the rest of the offense to work – he can slide into the slot and become the main event. The only things in his way are his health and his relative lack of on-field experience. If the first goes well, the latter will take care of itself – Ross won’t have to fight for practice reps in camp.
Tyler Boyd, WR
There’s no third breakout candidate nearly as safe as Mixon or Ross, but there’s a considerable case for Tyler Boyd. He’s already shown that he can play substantially better than he did in 2017 – why couldn’t he do it again?
Per Football Outsiders, Brandon LaFell led the Bengals’ receivers in offensive snaps with 863. A.J. Green followed closely behind at 857, with Boyd finishing in a distant third with 307. Green shouldn’t go anywhere, but LaFell’s snaps won’t be as secure if Boyd and Ross come on strong in 2018. LaFell is a serviceable veteran – he’s not on the roster to play over younger talent if they’re ready to start.
As far as who’s behind him? Josh Malone has a case, depending on which skill set Bill Lazor prefers to complement Green and Ross. Seventh-round rookie Auden Tate is somewhat intriguing but looks like a role player with a very limited athletic profile. Everyone else is either a career special-teams player (Cody Core, Alex Erickson) or an undrafted free agent.
Boyd has the ability to thrive in the slot with Green and Ross on the flanks. It’d be best that he start thriving again quickly – 2019 is a contract year for him.