The Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Mixon is the most undervalued running back in fantasy football.
The Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota Vikings' Dalvin Cook, Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry, New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara and Cleveland Browns' Nick Chubb are obvious opening-round options. Mixon is every bit worthy of a first-round target.
Instead, he is being drafted 19th overall on average in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues as the 13th running back off the board, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. His value ranks slightly lower in standard leagues.
Opportunity, consistency and an improved surrounding cast help project a much higher standing for the 24-year-old ball-carrier.
Mixon's usage will significantly increase this fall after the Bengals released veteran running back Giovani Bernard. The fifth-year back should easily enter workhorse territory, as The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr. noted:
"Assuming health, this will be the largest workload of Joe Mixon's career. Tag an extra 15-20 receptions to his previous totals by virtue of Giovani Bernard being gone. You will see Samaje Perine give him a breather for maybe a series or two a game. I'd expect Chris Evans to earn a portion of the pass situation plays as the year progresses. But for the most part, this will be all about him.
"I think you'll see him in the rarified air of the 80 percent snap rate and that should mean monster numbers."
Dehner's assessment jibes with the Bengals' plans.
"I don't want Joe [Mixon] to leave the field, and I think he's up for that challenge," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told reporters.
In four seasons, Mixon produced 4,367 yards from scrimmage with 25 touchdowns. More importantly, he eclipsed more than 1,400 total yards in his two seasons as a full-time starter. A year ago, a foot injury forced him onto injured reserve after only six games.
A healthy Mixon brings legitimate RB1 potential.
Before the foot problems, the running back was trending toward fantasy football's elite.
"I thought Joe was having a productive year for us when he got hurt. If I'm not mistaken he had as many touches as anybody in the league or the top two or three at the time of his injury," Taylor said. "Protections can continue to improve each year, but again we've seen really good things from Joe. I think he would have had a fantastic year last year had he stayed healthy, and that's the expectation for him this year."
Taylor made an excellent point regarding potential improvements in pass protection, opening the door for Mixon to have an expanded role on third downs.
With 129 career receptions, Mixon is a capable receiver out of the backfield. But Bernard tended to serve as the third-down back because he was far more reliable in the little things like proper protection. Since Mixon joined the Bengals, Bernard has caught 155 passes.
Sixth-round rookie Chris Evans will pick up some of the slack after Bernard's departure.
"I'm really going to be curious to see how Chris Evans responds in training camp," Callahan said. "He's got the most natural hands for a running back that I've ever been around."
Like Mixon, the young back must earn his way onto the field by doing the right things, especially in pass protection. Evans may steal a few reps, but Mixon is clearly the team's preferred third-down option.
In a part-time role last season, Bernard tied for 11th among running backs with 47 receptions. Mixon can easily double his own production from a year ago to finish in a similar range. Among the top projected fantasy backs, only Kamara, the Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler managed more (McCaffrey and the New York Giants' Saquon Barkley were hurt, of course).
These are only some of the reasons why Mixon should take off in his third season under Taylor's supervision.
His surrounding cast is better than it has ever been. Take the following into consideration: Since the Bengals chose the running back with the 48th overall pick in the '17 draft, the team's quarterback has never thrown for more than 3,494 yards or had a target eclipse 1,078 receiving yards.
Defenses weren't threatened by Cincinnati's weapons. They will be now.
Quarterback Joe Burrow is special. He carried the offense during his rookie campaign and worked his way into NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year contention before suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Last year's No. 1 overall pick used the time away from the game to strengthen his body and even rework some of his mechanics.
"I've noticed quite a bit of improvement across the board, not just velocity," Callahan told reporters. "He spent a lot of time looking at the thing he wanted to get better at this season, both physically and mentally, and I think he's done over the course of the offseason program.
"He's had a goal in mind of how he wanted to change his mechanics, some of his footwork, stance and how he's going to get more velocity on the ball. I have noticed it."
Tyler Boyd has been the Bengals' most consistent wide receiver, and they should expect more out of Tee Higgins in his second year after he led the team with 908 receiving yards in 2020.
"He looks like a different guy out there," Burrow said. "... Tee's going to have a big year."
Whether the Bengals made the right move by drafting the quarterback's favorite collegiate target, Ja'Marr Chase, with this year's fifth overall pick, no one can deny the rookie's outstanding ability. He and Burrow are already on the same page.
"The cool thing is Joe's done that with Ja'Marr for two years, and this is the third year of doing it. They got a good rapport," Callahan said. "You can see it and feel it. They know how to communicate with each other.
The added weapons and explosive opportunities in the passing game will only create more space for Mixon to operate.
The potential snag revolves around the team's rebuilt offensive front. Will the trench play be good enough for all of these talented skill positions performers to realize their potential?
Cincinnati signed 10th-year veteran Riley Reiff to play tackle opposite Jonah Williams. It also selected Jackson Carman in the second round this spring. The staff will convert him to guard. Quinton Spain, who joined the Bengals' practice squad last October, will have a full offseason under his belt. Trey Hopkins is returning at center. The group is more talented than the unit from a year ago, and the play of the front five directly affects everyone on offense.
But Mixon sure is happy about one thing: Frank Pollack's return as offensive line coach.
"Joe Mixon called me hooting and hollering about it," Burrow told reporters.
As of now, everything appears to be trending in the running back's favor. After all, fantasy football is about what a player could do during the upcoming season, not what he's previously accomplished. From that perspective, Mixon looks to be well on his way to becoming a top performer and winning leagues for those with enough foresight to understand his rightful place among this year's running backs.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.