The last three draft classes have featured running backs -- Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley -- who were labeled as transcendent players before they even hit the gridiron. Barkley makes his debut Sunday, but Zeke and Fournette have already brought more attention to the position. Still, there's one player many have overlooked. Someone who has just as much, if not more, game-changing ability as these three high draft picks. Joe Mixon.
I've been high on the Cincinnati Bengal since he declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, ranking him as my top running back of that class due to his patience as a runner, versatility and great route-running ability. His talent is as impressive as that of Elliott and Barkley, and if it weren't for some serious off-the-field issues, he could have undoubtedly been a top-10 draft pick, as well. And though Mixon, a second-round selection, didn't exactly take the league by storm as a rookie (178 carries for 626 rush yards and four TDs; 30 rec. for 287 rec. yards), he's poised for a huge breakthrough in Year 2, one that will put him among the transcendent backs in the NFL.
The Bengals took their time with Mixon in 2017 and people will write him off (if they already haven't) as a top back. He's worked hard this offseason, come into camp in great shape and the Bengals have already given us a glimpse of how they plan to use the 6-foot-1, 220-pound power back. In the preseason, Mixon has not only lined up in the backfield but outside on the perimeter and in the slot, establishing himself as a dual-threat player.
Mixon -- and Cincy's offense, in general -- will greatly benefit from the additions of left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price. Plus, John Ross' strong preseason and a healthy Tyler Eifert will open up the field for No. 28. This offense is flying under the radar heading into Week 1 -- when the Bengals travel to play Indianapolis -- but won't be come midseason with Mixon leading the way. If everything falls into place, he could have a better season statistically than Zeke, Fournette and Barkley, and push the 1,000/1,000 envelope.
Entering the 2018 NFL season, former All-Pro running back and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew examines all RBs and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the Ground Index rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2018 season.
2) Weekly performances, while considering strength of opponent.
Rankings will be solely judged on this season's efforts following Week 4. Now, let's get to it. Entering Week 1, here is MJD's pecking order:
Bell is the best running back in the league right now, which is why his target in contract negotiations ($17 million per year) would have made him the highest-paid back in the league. Yet, here we are. Bell has yet to sign his franchise tender or report to Pittsburgh. It's a shame we won't see him come Sunday when the Steelers take on the Browns -- as of now, that is. Hopefully, he reports soon because he's a phenomenal, dual-threat back who the Steelers need. His 2017 production speaks for itself and he'll likely get 400 touches again if he's on the field, setting him up for a huge payday in free agency next offseason.
**2017 stats:** 15 games | 321 att | 1,291 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 85 rec | 655 rec yds | 2 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
Gurley emerged as one of the league's premier dual-threat running backs a season ago and wound up taking home Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts. His performance in Sean McVay's first year at the helm resulted in a well-deserved extension (four-year, $60 million extension) and he's sure to prove his worth again in 2018.
**2017 stats:** 15 games | 279 att | 1,305 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 13 rush TDs | 64 rec | 788 rec yds | 6 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year will have more on his plate from the get-go, with Mark Ingram slated to miss the first four games due to suspension. Kamara's value to the Saints is evident: He brings another dimension to the offense and takes a ton of pressure off veteran QB Drew Brees.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 120 att | 728 rush yds | 6.1 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 81 rec | 826 rec yds | 5 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
Especially with a dwindled receiving corps, the Cowboys' offense will revolve around the 2016 league rushing leader and Offensive Rookie of the Year. And rightfully so. He's proven he belongs in the top five with what he's done in two years. That said, I'm looking for him to take a greater role in the passing game in Year 3.
**2017 stats:** 10 games | 242 att | 983 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 26 rec | 269 rec yds | 2 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
After watching Johnson get seven touches in the preseason, I can't wait to see him ball out starting Sunday. He will be the focal point of the Cardinals' offense and has the goods to succeed against loaded boxes.
**2017 stats:** 1 games | 11 att | 23 rush yds | 2.1 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 6 rec | 67 rec yds | 0 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
Fournette was stellar as a rookie and will again be the center of the Jags' offense, especially with receiver Marqise Lee out for the year. Jacksonville's lack of offensive weapons puts even more emphasis on the run game, and Fournette can carry the load if he can stay healthy.
**2017 stats:** 13 games | 268 att | 1,040 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 36 rec | 302 rec yds | 1 rec TD </content:power-ranking>
I'm expecting Hunt to touch the ball early and often as Patrick Mahomes gets comfortable. Inconsistent in Year 1, Hunt still led the league in rushing yards with 1,327. He should duplicate his overall rookie production.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 272 att | 1,327 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 53 rec | 455 rec yds | 3 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
There are so many question marks surrounding the Bills' offense, but running back is not one of them. Shady can score from anywhere on the field, and he'll have to be special if the Bills want to compete.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 287 att | 1,138 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 59 rec | 448 rec yds | 2 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
Cook was leading the league in rushing yards last season before his rookie campaign ended with a major knee injury. After watching him in training camp, he looks just as explosive with a better understanding of the offense. Expect big things from Minnesota's young star.
**2017 stats:** 4 games | 74 att | 354 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 11 rec | 90 rec yds | 0 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
There's no doubt the Bears got better this offseason, but the offense will still run through Howard. With more than 1,100 rushing yards in each of his first two pro campaigns, the first- and second-down back opens up the field for Mitchell Trubisky and Co.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 276 att | 1,122 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 23 rec | 125 rec yds | 0 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
As I explained above, I think Mixon will have a breakout season in Year 2, so why is he slotted at No. 11? His so-so rookie season keeps him here -- for now -- but I still expect this kid to flourish and climb the ladder.
**2017 stats:** 14 games | 178 att | 626 rush yds | 3.5 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 30 rec | 287 rec yds | 0 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
He's been quite steady as a top dual-threat back for a while. The only reason he sits this low is because he's part of a committee -- not to mention a LOADED Falcons' offense -- so his touches might be somewhat limited.
**2017 stats:** 14 games | 196 att | 865 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 36 rec | 317 rec yds | 1 rec TD </content:power-ranking>
Expect a big year from Gordon behind a healthy offensive line. We know Philip Rivers is good enough to win this team around seven games on his own, but Gordon has the ability to take the Chargers to the top of the division.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 284 att | 1,105 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 58 rec | 476 rec yds | 4 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>
Solid as a rookie, McCaffrey will be leaned on immensely in the run and pass games under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Expect the second-year back to have more than 300 touches -- over 100 more than he had in 2017.
**2017 stats:** 16 games | 117 att | 435 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 80 rec | 651 rec yds | 5 rec TDs </content:power-ranking>