Going into the start of training camp Thursday, Cincinnati Bengals brass all seemed to be emphasizing one thing: The importance of quarterback Andy Dalton having a great year.
A few key players surrounding him could have a big impact on that — including a healthy Tyler Eifert, who begins camp on the physically unable to perform list — but running back Joe Mixon hopes to take off some of the pressure with a breakout sophomore season.
The Bengals’ 2017 second-round draft pick could be the focal point in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s new playbook.
“I feel like it’s hopefully shaping up to be like that, but we shall see,” Mixon said prior to the team’s first practice Thursday afternoon.
The former Oklahoma University standout rushed for 626 yards and four touchdowns on 178 carries last year as a rookie, but he reported to camp about 10 pounds leaner, checking in at 218 pounds, and hopes that allows him to be a more complete back this season.
Mixon said in his best years with the Sooners he was playing around 216 pounds and that’s right where he would like to be by the end of camp.
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“I feel really good with where I’m at,” Mixon said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can to stay in shape and to be leaner and more active and see what I can do. The more I want to go harder and am able to go harder, it keeps me ready to go — it doesn’t get me to where I’m limited at first and second down. I am able to go on third down and be a complete back, do whatever I can do to succeed in this offense.”
With the help of a retooled offensive line under new position coach Frank Pollack, the running game appears to be a priority in Lazor’s first full season as offensive coordinator after replacing Ken Zampese following a Week 2 loss to Houston last fall.
Mixon became the team’s go-to back when Jeremy Hill was shut down with an ankle injury in November, and Hill’s departure to New England this offseason leaves little doubt Mixon is the guy in 2018. Giovani Bernard will factor in, as well, now having a full year playing on his reconstructed ACL.
“Coaches, they’ve got their schemes and what they’ve got going, and the line, we’ve had talks with them about the tempo and how we’re going to set it, how we’re going to run the ball and how physical up front they are going to be and how the running backs have to approach it,” Mixon said. “We’re all excited. It’s early but we’re going to do what we need to be successful.
“Our new line coach (Frank Pollack) came in with the mindset we’re going to run the ball. He came in preaching that since Day 1, so we’re following his lead and we’ll see how it works out.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis said the vertical passing game needs to be better in Dalton’s eighth season, after some struggles in that area last year, but Lazor noted Tuesday that the Bengals will need the running game to open that up a little more.
Former first-round pick John Ross, who comes in with high expectations after a strong showing this offseason, could be a good target down field if he is able to shake off an injury-riddled rookie season. And, the Bengals are still placing faith in Eifert after re-signing him to a one-year deal in March, despite neck and back issues plaguing his career to this point.
Eifert is able to come off the PUP list as soon as he is medically cleared before the season, but the fact he is starting camp on the sidelines leads to more questions how soon he will be ready to play.
“Hopefully Tyler Eifert can come back and be a factor for us,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said Tuesday during the annual pre-camp media luncheon. “I can’t predict the future on that one, but I can testify to the fact that he made a difference when he was up and running for us. We know what he can do if he can get back to that level. I know his full intent is to get back to that level. We’ll see if he can.”
In the meantime, Mixon is feeling more confident about his ability to contribute after a season learning the ropes of the NFL. He is working toward what he hopes is a much-improved second year.
“I’m just coming in with the mindset that I’m going to come to work every day,” he said. “This is business, and I’ve got that mindset to whatever I’ve got to do to be successful and excel and to be ahead of everybody, that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve had that mindset since we came off the season and I’m definitely going to stay focused and keep that mindset.”