by Ryer Gardenswartz
James Conner and Joe Mixon have been duking it out for fantasy superiority all summer long. Both running backs are headed into 2019 with high expectations and a chance to break into the upper echelon of fantasy running backs. Their ADP is separated by only a few spots, Conner at 10 and Mixon at 13, as they are side-by-side in running back rankings. As of now, both players figure to be top ten running backs for 2019, but who will have the upper hand come December?
In terms of pure talent, Mixon has the advantage. He finished as the top rusher in the AFC last year (1,168 yards) and 4th in the entire NFL, even after missing four games. Not only is he a threat on the ground, but he can also help in the passing game (43 receptions, 296 yards). The biggest problem with Mixon is the talent around him.
The Bengals had to deal with a ton of injuries to their star players, which made them very one-dimensional in 2018. The offensive line in Cincinnati doesn’t do Mixon many favors either. While they did try to improve the o-line over the offseason, they have already seen their number one pick, Jonah Williams, go down with a season ending injury. In terms of sharing the rock, the only player that will take touches away is Giovani Bernard, but he is nearing the end of his career and barely had over 200 rushing yards in 2018. One promising factor for Mixon and the Bengals offense is new head coach Zac Taylor. While he is very young and relatively unproven, his zone scheme could be a breath of fresh air and help Mixon top his 2018 totals.
Conner is in a more favorable system with the Steelers. Conner came into 2018 and quickly quieted the critics wondering if we could fill the Le’Veon Bell sized hole. He tallied 973 rushing yards, 497 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns in only 13 games, making him one of the most productive backs in 2018. While there have been some rumblings about a running back by committee in Pittsburgh, I think Conner’s production will quickly supersede that rumor.
Traditionally, the Steelers have had a bell-cow back and there isn’t any reason believe that won’t happen again in 2019. However, Conner will have to stave off competition from Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell Jr. in order to hold onto his bell-cow status. Obviously, the loss of Antonio Brown is significant, but JuJu Smith-Schuster and Big Ben should be able to compensate for that loss. Plus, it could allow for Conner to see more opportunities in the passing game.
Both of these young backs are coming on the heels of breakout seasons, but which one offers more fantasy upside? If I had to choose one of the two, I’d side with Conner.
I think that the Steelers offer him more opportunities to succeed compared to the Bengals and Mixon. The Steelers have other weapons that should allow Conner to work in space more often. If the recent news about AJ Green’s injured foot prove to be serious (current report is torn ligaments in his ankle: out 6-8 weeks), then there will be a lot of pressure on Mixon to perform. That could result in the Bengals becoming too predictable and defenses stacking the box.
In terms of touches, both will get their fair share. There were only six running backs that had at least 200 carries and 50 targets and both Conner and Mixon were among that group. Both are effective in the passing game as well, but Conner did finish with 12 more receptions in 2018.
The biggest differentiating factor between the two could be health. Neither of them played a full season in 2018, even though they had some eye-popping stats. While Conner has more injury history, he should have a better chance to stay healthy as there are more options when he needs a breather. If both players can suit up for all 16 games, they should be able to compete for the rushing title and be key contributors on your fantasy team. I don’t think you can wrong with either, but if both are available, I’m banking on James Conner to replicate his strong 2018.