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Fantasy Football Crossroads: Dalvin Cook vs. Joe Mixon

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We continue our crossroads series with a look at two of the best running backs in the NFL.

 

Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon will both be drafted within the top-15 selections in fantasy drafts this season, but many will have to decide between the two All-Pro running backs. 

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Dalvin Cook FTN Fantasy Player BioThe Case for Cook

One of the most productive running backs in the NFL, Dalvin Cook was once again strong in 2021, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. The volume was once again solid, as Cook averaged 19.1 carries and 2.6 receptions per game, while his 79.7% opportunity share was the fifth-highest mark in the league. Cook has also missed a handful of games each season but isn’t anywhere close to as “injury prone” as many people believe him to be. Over the last three seasons, Cook has played 14, 14 and 13 games, so while it seems like a lock he’ll miss a couple of games each year, how many running backs don’t?

Dalvin Cook 2022 Fantasy Crossroads

The interesting case with Cook last season was the drop in touchdowns. After finding the end zone 17 total times in 2020, Cook only scored six rushing touchdowns this past season, ranking outside the top-20 players. As we know, touchdowns aren’t very sticky and can be extremely unpredictable year over year. And although the lack of touchdowns was underwhelming, I care more about the opportunity he saw. On his 12 rushing attempts from inside the 5-yard line last season, Cook only scored three touchdowns, while scoring four touchdowns on 26 carries from inside the 10, which was obviously a step back from his 2020 campaign where he converted eight of his league-leading 22 carries from inside the 5 into touchdowns. Cook still finished sixth among all running backs in inside-the-5 carries (12) and fourth in inside-the-10 carries (26). I fully expect Cook to be more efficient from in close this season, while the volume shouldn’t be going anywhere, especially with new head coach Kevin O’Connell coming from the Rams system that has historically leaned on one running back since Sean McVay has been there. 

Speaking of O’Connell’s scheme, it could lead to more receiving work for Cook. We have already seen Cook line up in the slot a bit during practice and we know the Vikings are going to throw the football more than they had under Mike Zimmer and both Gary and Klint Kubiak. Cook is coming off a career-low 3.7 targets per game last season, a number that could easily go up in this system. And if that is the case, it could balance out a potential dip in rushing attempts if Minnesota goes more pass-heavy. Remember, the Vikings have ranked no higher than 18th in passing rate over the last three seasons. During his final three seasons with the Rams, Todd Gurley finished as the RB1, RB3 and RB14 in fantasy football and there is no reason to believe that Cook can’t finish as a top-five running back once again, if not higher.

The Case Against Cook

If you had to make an argument against Cook, I guess the fact that he does miss games could come up. But if you give me 14 games of Cook’s production, he could still easily finish as a top-five fantasy running back. The only other case against him is the fact that we likely see fewer 20-carry games from Cook in an offense that is set to throw more, and it isn’t as if Minnesota is devoid of receiver talent to the point where Cook sees elite passing game usage. 

 

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon FTN Fantasy Player BioThe Case for Mixon

Joe Mixon is coming off a career year, setting highs in rushing attempts (292), rushing yards (1,205), receiving yards (314) and total touchdowns (16). He was the RB4 in all of fantasy and remains the lead back for one of the best offenses in football. Mixon also played 16 games last season and saw plenty of short-yardage work, ranking third with 14 carries from inside the 5-yard line and fourth with 26 carries from inside the 10. He averaged over 18 carries and 2.6 receptions per game last season, and while 13 rushing touchdowns is already a healthy number, it wouldn’t shock me if he passed that mark in 2022. Because the Bengals ripped off so many long touchdowns, this offense actually ranked just 18th in red zone scoring trips per game (3.1). Quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase led the NFL in vertical passing touchdowns and if we expect that to regress, we should see longer drives, giving Mixon even more overall opportunity. The Bengals very quietly averaged the fourth-fewest plays per drive (5.7), while ranking just 17th in yards per drive (32.2). Between a drop in long touchdowns and improvements to the offensive line, look for the Bengals to rank inside the top-10 in both categories this season, which helps Mixon.

Joe Mixon 2022 Fantasy Crossroads

Speaking of the offensive line, the improvements Cincinnati has made are also a plus. Granted, addressing the right side of the line has more to do with protecting Burrow in the passing game but the players they added can certainly help in the running game. Tackle La’el Collins graded out as PFF’s ninth-best run-blocking offensive lineman a season ago, while guard Alex Cappa was top-20 in gap concepts. That bodes well for Mixon, as 102 of his carries last season were out of the gap scheme, the sixth most in football. 

The Case Against Mixon

Literally the only case I can make against Mixon is his inconsistent usage in the passing game. Mixon had seven games last year where he caught at least four passes but also eight games where he caught one or zero balls. We also saw some serious splits in pass rate for the Bengals last year, as they were a run-first team to begin the season, perhaps easing Burrow back from his 2020 injury. In Weeks 1-8, Cincinnati posted the 11th-lowest pass rate in the NFL (56.9%). However, during Weeks 9-18, the Bengals climbed to 12th in overall passing rate (59.5%). If the Bengals head into the 2022 season like they did to end the 2021 season, they will be more pass-heavy, which could be both good and bad for Mixon. It really depends on how they feel about Chris Evans, who is generating hype as a third-down running back.

The Verdict: Dalvin Cook

Let me just say that I’d be thrilled if either running back were on my fantasy team. But if I had to make a decision, I’d lean toward Cook. Again, I fully expect his touchdowns to skyrocket back up toward the median, while an uptick in work in the passing game certainly excites me. And while the Vikings have great receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, Cook will still have less competition for targets than Mixon, who has already had inconsistent passing game usage, and plays alongside Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd

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