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TeX’s and O’s: Joe Mixon brings needed dimension to Houston’s offense

The drumbeat had been remarkably steady.

For weeks, local fans of the Houston Texans and national media alike clamored for the team to add a star running back. Whether it was a high-profile free agent like New York star Saquon Barkley or 2022 first-team All-Pro Josh Jacobs, everyone saw the Texans as a team well-positioned to make the move.

The decision to add a truly elite threat to the backfield in offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s run-first offense alongside NFL Offensive Rookie C.J. Stroud seemed logical. Devin Singletary led the Texans in 2023 but didn’t break 900 rushing yards and the team as a whole finished 22nd in rushing yards and 29th in yards per attempt.

Instead, general manager Nick Caserio and head coach DeMeco Ryans opted for a different direction. Houston traded for longtime Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon for a 2024 seven-round selection. They subsequently extended Mixon on a three-year contract worth $27 million in total value.

Mixon is a talented player. The Bengals drafted the University of Oklahoma product with the 48th pick of the 2017 NFL draft. Since then, Mixon rushed for more than 1,000 yards in four of his seven NFL seasons. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2021 and has 62 total touchdowns over his career. Mixon’s excellent play had previously netted him a four-year, $48 million extension in 2020.

Despite that, this still wasn’t the caliber of signing of a Barkley or Jacobs. Mixon has never led the league in rushing, been a first team All-Pro or carried that designation as a franchise-changing back. What caused the Texans to look in this direction instead of what everyone had penciled in?

While many hoped Houston would add someone that could serve as the “engine” or primary driver of their offense, in reality the Texans went for a more complimentary role. In that note, the Texans opted for more of an “All-Wheel Drive” feature for the offense. Mixon won’t win them the race, but he can keep them on schedule and out of the mud.

General manager Nick Caserio said of the recently signed Mixon on Sports Radio 610 that Mixon “is a player that has been a very consistent, very productive, very durable player over the last few years. He’s usually out there. He’s got good balance, a good running style, he’s versatile and can play in the passing game.”

Indeed, the tape shows a player that’s tailor-fit for this role in Slowik’s offense for all those reasons.

Mixon is a powerful, decisive runner with ample experience in running the zone scheme. He has the patience to allow runs to develop and offers explosiveness to those gaps once present. Mixon’s strength may be his greatest asset, as his forward momentum often moves defenders and he gains additional yards after contact either shedding tacklers or bringing them with him.

It’s not just the film. He’s had a Pro Football Focus rushing grade more than 70 for each of the past three seasons and still averaged 4.0 yards per carry this past season despite Joe Burrow going down with a season-ending injury. He’s been a phenomenal runner in multiple circumstances and schemes for the Bengals.

Mixon showed throughout his career he’s capable of handling a large volume rushing role and the same should be expected on the Texans. His physicality will help to wear down defenses over the course of the game and his vision should maximize runs as they materialize in Slowik’s gap scheme. The offensive line should not only be healthier in 2024 but also will have the benefit of experience on their side, Mixon is a savvy veteran who can help Houston to realize any gains that unit collectively makes.

Although not considered a home-run hitter, Mixon still has the relative explosiveness and speed that, when combined with how decisive of a runner he is, translates to big gains. He’ll provide chunk plays to Houston’s steady diet of runs without the kind of questionable decision making that can lead to big losses and throwing the offensive script off schedule.

What about the passing game? One of the primary perks of adding a Barkley was that the running back could further contribute to their own value by catching passes. Unfortunately, Mixon does not have this same attribute but can still contribute in simpler ways.

He was often tasked as an outlet option in the Bengals offense and also saw a good volume of screen plays. Cincinnati worked to get Mixon the ball when the defense was overly aggressive or too focused on their perimeter weapons — something that Houston is similarly well positioned to capitalize on.

His qualities as a runner translate very well when catching the ball and facing linebackers in space as well as when he’s given blockers to work behind on screen plays. Mixon is someone that can be motioned out wide as a decoy or thrown the ball in motion as someone who is still an unpleasant tackle for any defensive back.

It’s an excellent fit in an offense that doesn’t need their running back to be everything. Stroud is the primary driver with his elite processing and accuracy, while receivers Nico Collins, Tank Dell and tight end Dalton Schultz remain matchup nightmares at their respective positions. Mixon is a great fit to ensure they see favorable passing scenarios while also being able to benefit off the attention that group absolutely demands horizontally.

If Mixon is such a perfect fit, why was the cost so cheap? Why isn’t he being paid as much as others?

His perfect fit for this offense is a near coincidence of his current skillset overlapping with Houston’s need. He still is not a splash play runner at this stage of his career and there are fair concerns over his ability on third down that go beyond his ability as a receiver.

Cincinnati did not appear to trust the veteran back as a blocker in 2023. They often leaned on running back Trayveon Williams or even tight end Drew Sample on third down to protect their quarterback. A back who isn’t capable of protecting his quarterback and picking up the blitz is an inherently limited player. In this way, the Texans will have to independently evaluate how much they trust Mixon.

The best case scenario will be that he can rebound as a pass protector in 2024, potentially serving as an every-down bell cow back for Houston. The worst case may be that the Texans need to seriously invest in a true third-down back for scenarios where they need additional protection to buy time for Stroud to pass.

Regardless, the fit is largely clear between the veteran and his new team.

Mixon will help the offense to stay on schedule and hopefully provide Slowik with a back that is more capable of maximizing the offensive line and the runs that develop on outside zone. His ability to handle high volume combined with his physicality leads to a difficult player for defenses to assess throughout the game and someone who can be used on all three downs.

The Texans upgraded at running back, regardless of questions over just how much. Now, they’ll have to see if their savvy investment in the veteran can lead to the type of return they’re hoping for in the run game to alleviate Stroud.

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire