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After a tough week of hard-hitting news across the league, it was refreshing to sit down and watch football the past couple of days. However, I’m struggling to come up with macro takeaways. You’d think we’d have a better sense of which teams are good at this point in the season. But there were a few players that caught my eye. Despite their performance in Week 9, it’s more about what we can expect as we start to look towards the playoffs. Here are my lessons learned from Week 9, with some takeaways as we cross the season's halfway mark.
Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Bengals
Week 9 Results: (Projected) 22.4, (Actual) 9.4
I was nervous for Joe Burrow going into the Jets’ game and was equally anxious for his match against Cleveland. The same quarterback that dueled with Aaron Rodgers straight up and made a statement to the league in Baltimore has had no answers for adjustments in opposing coverages the last two weeks. A team with energy and explosiveness over the previous month looked lifeless on Sunday. With Burrow on bye, it seemed like a good time to look at what’s worked and if he can turn it around in the second half of their season.
Advice Moving Forward:
Burrow is a matchup-based QB2 until further notice. He’s a non-essential hold through their bye week (assuming you have other options), and we’ll need to monitor the team’s offensive game plan over the next few weeks.
For total transparency, I’ve been a Bengals fan since 2001. I was a proponent of the team drafting Ja’Marr Chase and have been cautiously optimistic all season. It was surreal to see the team garner national attention and sit atop the AFC North rankings, if only for about a week. But, I had a sense that we were playing with fire in the back of my mind.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The explosive plays have been fun to watch. But there needs to be more to an offense. From Week 3, when their pass rate started to pick up, until their loss to the Jets in Week 7, Burrow was tied for the most touchdown passes and fifth in passing yards on deep throws. Over that stretch, his fantasy point total (112.7) was right behind Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and Lamar Jackson. He had more points than Patrick Mahomes II, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Herbert. But it was difficult to expect the rank to hold for much longer.
Burrow hasn’t had nearly the same passing volume compared to his peers. It took Cincinnati all season to get to 18th in pass rate over expectation. Without the additional attempts, Burrow would need to be hyper-efficient or be towards the top of the league in plays run to maintain his production. However, it’s not how the Bengals’ offense has preferred to operate.
|Yards per Drive||22nd|
|Plays per Game||28th|
|Third-Down Conversion Rate||21st|
The “Burrow-Chase” connection accounted for 40.3% of the team’s passing production from Weeks 3 through 7. New York and Cleveland took it away over the last two weeks. As a result, Cincinnati’s yards per drive have dropped from 34.6 to 27.8. They’ve been unable to sustain drives, and Burrow’s production has plummeted.
They have the bye week to do some soul searching. However, they face the Raiders, Steelers, and Chargers coming out of their bye. Connecting on deep shots may have been their identity to start the season, but we’ll need to see a systemic shift in how they deploy their receivers to regain any confidence in Burrow as a starter.
Running Back: James Conner, Cardinals
Week 9 Results: (Projected) 9.8, (Actual) 35.3
Conner has had opposing fantasy managers turning into Aaron Paul as he’s vultured touchdowns from Chase Edmonds, Kyler Murray, and all receiving options. However, his role quickly changed in Week 9. Edmonds has a high ankle sprain and will miss multiple games. After bludgeoning the 49ers with a three-touchdown game, I looked into Conner’s role throughout the season and what we should expect as the team tries to get healthy.
Advice Moving Forward:
Conner hops into the mid to high-end RB2 conversation until Edmonds returns. He’s a weekly starter and a hold in any trade unless there’s a noticeable upgrade in return, and you can mitigate the loss.
The offseason narratives regarding Arizona’s backfield were accurate. We saw the difference in size and skillset between Edmonds and Conner, so drawing a line from there to their roles was easy. Edmonds would be the starter with limited receiving work, and Conner would come in for short-yardage situations. However, we didn’t know how lucrative Conner’s role would be.
|Inside the 20||21||16|
|Inside the 10||13||7|
|Inside the 5||8||2|
Even factoring in Edmonds’ targets doesn’t make the picture any better. Conner has taken the majority of the high-value touches throughout most of the season. And the results have been “LeGarrette Blount-esque.” The fact that he’s tied with Derrick Henry in rushing touchdowns is one thing. But, how Conner has done it is something else entirely.
If you only look at their scoring plays, Henry gained 183 yards on his path to 10 rushing scores. He had his signature breakaway runs of 60 and 76 yards to balance his touchdowns with yards on the ground. Conner was, well, much more efficient. His goal-line role allowed him to find the paint the same amount of times on just 51 yards. Now, Conner takes over as the likely starter with Edmonds sidelined.
Some folks might dismiss Conner’s 19.2 target share in Week 9 as a complete outlier, but I’m not quite there. Eno Benjamin did average 38.5 receptions over his final two years at Arizona State. But he didn’t even run a route in Week 9. Meanwhile, Conner ran 20 routes, and we have a history of him catching passes while he was still in Pittsburgh (11.1% target share). There’s merit to continuing his involvement in the passing game even once his teammates are healthy.
However, we should keep the game environment in mind. Arizona was in clear control and didn’t need to adjust personnel usage throughout the game. Regardless, Conner will have the starting role, goal-line role, and, at minimum, minor involvement in the league’s most efficient offense. Let’s watch his utilization in Week 10, but he has all traits of a high-end RB2 if the workload continues.
Wide Receiver: Tee Higgins, Bengals
Week 9 Results: (Projected) 13.6, (Actual) 7.8
I hope I haven’t cursed my team. The last time I looked at a quarterback and wide receiver on the same team for this article was in Week 5 when I reviewed Sam Darnold and D.J. Moore. If things get worse, you can blame me. In any case, Tee Higgins has been the wide receiver on the Bengals to roster outside of Chase. The opportunity has been there, but the results don’t align. Let’s focus on the sophomore receiver for a minute and see if there’s any hope for him moving forward.
Advice Moving Forward:
Higgins’ production will be a byproduct of his offense (see notes on Burrow above), but his usage points to a high-end WR2. Start him as a WR2 or, at least, Flex as the offense tries to improve.
Higgins has had a highlight-worthy play almost every week. Whether it’s been an acrobatic catch or a reception in traffic, we’ve seen him involved on every drive. However, the results don’t match the tape. Since returning from injury in Week 5, he’s earned 42 targets. That’s good! But 313 yards, zero touchdowns, and sitting at WR25 doesn’t inspire confidence. His underlying usage does, though.
Over the last five weeks, he’s earned a 23.5% target share, which rivals other wide receivers we consider to be WR1s. Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs have target shares of 21.5% and 18.5% over the same span. Higgins’ air yard share (34.1%) has steadily risen, too. He’s now matched with Cooper Kupp (34.0%) and just slightly behind Tyreek Hill (36.3%), lending more credence to the idea his time is coming. He’s also just been on the wrong side of variance.
On Sunday, Higgins was tackled inside the red zone twice and was brought down at the two-yard line against the Jets. At the same time, he’s second on the team in red-zone targets with an aDOT consistent with most WR1s (12.1). His on-field usage is a positive sign of things to come. Plus, his opportunity between the 20’s and in the red zone is what we want from a top-tier receiver. Cincinnati needs to adjust their offense over the bye, but we shouldn’t adjust our stance on Tee Higgins.