INDIANAPOLIS -- For the Cincinnati Bengals to keep the core of a Super Bowl contender together, they're going to have to make some tough decisions this offseason.
One of those could include running back Joe Mixon. Judging by the words of Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin, Mixon could be among the players the Bengals are forced to cut this offseason.
"Joe has been a vital part of our team," Tobin said Tuesday at his NFL Scouting Combine news conference. "He's been a successful part of our team. Again, I'm not gonna predict the offseason because I don't have the answers. In the words of the great Kevin Malone (a character from The Office), 'I don't know.'"
When personnel honchos say "I don't know" about a player's future with the team -- and even when they're doing so a bit tongue in cheek -- it's fair to question whether that player will be back.
Mixon is due to count nearly $12.8 million against the salary cap in 2023 and is coming off a season in which he averaged his fewest rush yards per game (58.1) since splitting backfield duties during his rookie year. He played in 14 of the Bengals' 16 regular-season games and scored nine touchdowns, but five of those came in a win over the Panthers.
Tobin left the door open for a return -- which almost certainly would include a major pay cut -- but didn't paint the rosiest picture of that possibility.
"We'll all see as the offseason goes, what we're able to get done and how the resources are spread around," Tobin said. "But Joe's been a vital part of our team, a successful part, a contributing part. And my job is to try to keep as many of those pieces around as we can."
Cutting or trading Mixon before June 1 would incur a dead-money hit of $5.5 million but result in almost $7.3 million in cap space. Designating Mixon as a post-June 1 transaction would be more friendly for the Bengals, with a dead-money hit of $2.75 million and salary-cap savings of just over $10 million.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor seemed more praiseworthy of Mixon.
When asked if the team needs "more juice" in the backfield, he said: "I think he's given us great juice. He's been a really good weapon for us and was voted a captain this year by the team."
While Taylor added that he has enjoyed having Mixon around, he also mentioned the reality of the Bengals' situation.
"I think it's really hard to predict what we're going to do going forward," he said.
The Bengals currently have more than $35 million in salary-cap space, but the to-do list is long. There are 15 unrestricted free agents, plus the window for Joe Burrow being eligible to receive a contract situation is now open.
He's also not the only Bengals player who is eligible for that.
Tee Higgins, one half of one of the league's best one-two wide receiver punches with Ja’Marr Chase, also is. There even was some speculation that Higgins could possibly be dangled in trade talks as a way of limiting the Bengals' financial footprint this offseason.
But if Tobin is to be taken at his word, the likelihood of Higgins being dealt this offseason feels remote at best.
"I'm not in the business of making other teams better. I'm in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better. So trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind," Tobin said. "That's (other teams') problem -- they want a receiver, go find your own.
"In my opinion, Tee Higgins is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals, so the trade stuff is a little ridiculous right now."
When you look at how Tobin addressed the futures of Mixon and Higgins in Cincinnati, the difference in the responses couldn't have been more stark. The former feels like he's moving on. The latter feels like a critical piece of the Bengals' future.