Links to discussions for other teams:
The Cincinnati defense had a fairly good 2021 by any standard. Considering how bad they were in 2020, last year was rather impressive. No statistic expresses that improvement more than sacks. After finishing last with 17 in 2020, the Bengals jumped into the top twelve with 42. They gave up a lot of passing yards but also faced the fourth most attempts. Cincinnati was middle of the pack in just about every other category, including takeaways and points.
With an offense loaded at the skill positions and an offensive line rebuilt in free agency, the organization could focus on defense in the draft, using five of their six picks, including their first three, on that side of the ball.
He will do it occasionally, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is not big on blitzing to create pressure. Thus 37.5 of Cincinnati’s sacks were generated by the defensive line. Everyone got involved with the ends accounting for 22.5 and the interior guys 15. Trey Hendrickson led the way with 14.
With 27.5 sacks over the last two seasons, Hendrickson has emerged as one of the league’s elite pass rushers. Coy Bacon had 21.5 in 1976 but that was before sacks were an official stat, so Hendrickson officially holds the team record for a single season.
On the field, Hendrickson is a three-down player and difference-maker. In IDP terms, his modest tackle totals tend to hold his fantasy value in check. The 34 combined stops he recorded last season were a career-best but run defense is not a strength of his game. Hendrickson is adequate but can struggle at times when teams run at him. He can be counted on for double-digit sacks and a few forced fumbles, but anything more than 40 combined tackles would be a gift. Slot Hendrickson on your draft board as a good DL2.
The most valuable IDP target of this group is Sam Hubbard. In 2019 he was a breakout player for fantasy managers and a bright spot for the Bengals in a generally dismal season. With 74 combined tackles, including 48 solos, and 8.5 sacks, Hubbard ranked sixth among defensive linemen that year. In 2020 he slumped along with the rest of the defense, but even then he managed good tackle totals with 34 solos and 28 assists.
Hubbard rebounded nicely in 2021. With 61 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 3 takeaways, he made the top twelve for the second time in three seasons. He is never going to challenge for a sack title but can be counted on for somewhere between seven and ten, along with three or four batted passes and a couple of takeaways. Hubbard is a quality three-down player that will make up for light numbers in the big-play columns with solid and consistent tackle production. He falls short of the elite tier of fantasy options at the position but is a good target as a low-end DL1 or priority DL2.
Hendrickson is signed through 2024 and Hubbard through 2025 but that has not stopped the organization from building good young depth at the position. Over the last three drafts, the team has used third-round picks on Joseph Ossai in 2021 and Zachary Carter in 2022, a fourth on Cameron Sample in 2021, a fifth on Khalid Kareem in 2020, and a seventh on Wyatt Hubert in 2021.
Sample logged the majority of the playing time behind the starters last year and did a good job, but it is Joseph Ossai we need to keep an eye on in 2022. Ossai was seen by many in the scouting community as a steal in the third round. He had an excellent training camp and was giving the Buccaneers fits in the first pre-season game until injury struck, and he ended up missing the season with a torn meniscus. Considering where he was headed as a rookie and his history at Texas, where he racked up 145 combined tackles and 10 sacks in 22 games as a starter, this is a guy to pull the trigger on quickly should either of the starters go down.
Larry Ogunjobi and his seven sacks from the 3-technique tackle position will be missed. That said, the emergence of B.J. Hill is a big part of the reason Ogunjobi is gone. Hill had a strong 2021 on the field and his box score production reflected it. He was the third man in the tackle rotation early in the season. His role and numbers increased when Ogunjobi, was banged up and Hill ended the season as a starter. He finished 2021 as the number 14 tackle with a solid 50 combined stops and 5.5 sacks. Hill is set to be the starting 3-technique and the bump in snap count could be enough to push him into the top twelve. Look for Hill to be at least a strong DT2 option in 2022.
D.J. Reader rounds out the starting lineup at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. He is a 347-pound anchor in the middle of the defense and was a significant contributor to the team’s changing fortunes last year. Reader commands double teams on running plays between the tackles, which frees up those on both sides of him and makes life much easier for the linebackers behind him. He is not quick and nimble as a pass rusher but has the power to push the pocket and be disruptive.
Reader’s presence impacts the production of those around him, but like many big men in the trenches, his value on the field does not translate well to the stat sheet. He was consistently in the range of 50-55 combined tackles and a couple of sacks while with Houston early in his and totaled 43 with a pair of sacks for the Bengals in 2021. He might be roster worth as depth in some leagues starting two interior linemen, but Reader’s upside is limited.
Second-year man Tyler Shelvin is the backup to Reader, with Josh Tupou listed as the backup to Hill. If one of the starters were to go down, those are the guys that would inherit the starting jobs, but we could see rookie Zachary Carter working from the inside as well, particularly in passing situations. He did so often over his final two seasons at Florida when he accounted for 12.5 sacks in 23 games. Some scouts envision Carter’s best fit in the NFL as a starting 3-technique tackle. To make that happen, he would have to hit the weight room hard and improve as a point-of-attack run defender, but it is certainly a possibility.
- DE Sam Hubbard – Low-end DL1 or priority DL2
- DE Trey Hendrickson – Light in the tackle columns but lots of big plays make him a solid DL2
- DE Joseph Ossai – Injury/dynasty sleeper with strong potential
- DE Cameron Sample – No impact expected
- DE/DT Zachary Carter- Dynasty sleeper pending a possible move to tackle
- DE Wyatt Hubert – No impact
- DE Khalid Kareem – Roster bubble
- DE Jeffery Gunter – developmental rookie
- DT D.J. Reader – DT3 at best
- DT B.J. Hill – Priority DT2
- DT Tyler Shelvin – No impact
- DT Josh Tupou – Injury sleeper with limited upside
The Bengals have settled for mediocre play at middle linebacker for most of the last two decades. Never was their need at the position more obvious than in 2019. It was surprising but understandable that the team passed on a linebacker at the top of the second round in the 2020 draft, instead landing wide receiver Tee Higgins at another position of need. When Logan Wilson was still available in round three, Cincinnati finally got their man.
Wilson is a prototypical three-down middle linebacker from a size, talent, and skill set perspective. At 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, he combines the size and mentality of a physical run defender with the speed and cover skills that come from being a former safety. Just as importantly, Wilson also brings the intangibles of leadership and toughness. Those were on full display when he played the entire postseason last year with a torn labrum.
As a rookie in 2020, Wilson worked in a timeshare with Josh Bynes. He had the job all to himself in year two, and an IDP star was born. Through Week 12 of last season, Wilson was the ninth-ranked linebacker with an average of 13.2 points per game. He was consistent, with at least six combined tackles in ten of eleven games leading up to the injury in Week 13, and Wilson’s big-play ability shined brightly with a sack and five takeaways that included a tie for the league lead in interceptions among linebackers with four. With the shoulder fixed, another year of experience, and no significant changes around him, Wilson should pick up right where he left off, with the potential to be even better in 2022.
Germaine Pratt made a strong impression after breaking into the starting lineup halfway through his rookie season in 2019. He has continued as the Bengals' weak-side starter since that time but has not been able to secure a three-down role on a regular basis. This is a bit puzzling considering he has ideal size, good speed, was a free safety at the beginning of his college career, and was seen by some scouts as the best coverage linebacker in his draft class.
Pratt is an aggressive and physical run defender but showed no prowess as a playmaker over his first two seasons. That changed in 2021 when he finally broke into the big-play column with five takeaways. If he were able to secure the sub-package snaps, Pratt could easily be a solid, every-week LB3. Without that playing time, however, he is relegated to a matchup-based starter or bye-week fill-in for most managers. That said, if you land Wilson this year, keep your finger on the trigger for Pratt as the handcuff. When Wilson was out with the shoulder late in the 2021 campaign, Pratt picked up the every-down role. He had 100% participation for those three games with an average of 15 fantasy points.
Cincinnati ran a nickel as their base defense in 2021, so there were rarely three linebackers on the field together. On those rare occasions, it was Akeem Davis-Gaither in the strong side position. Davis-Gaither did see some action in base sets taking a few snaps away from Pratt in third-down situations before he was lost to a foot injury in Week 8. If he is fully recovered, Davis-Gaither could reclaim a minor role and be the next man up if Pratt or Wilson are lost.
Markus Bailey, Joe Bachie, and Clay Johnson make up the rest of the depth chart at the second level. Bachie made a good impression in a limited opportunity last year but is recovering from an ACL tear. Bailey filled in nicely for a few games last season. He has little chance of becoming a starter but managed to earn the coaching staff's trust as a backup and special teams ace.
- MLB Logan Wilson – Priority LB2 with top-ten upside
- WLB Germaine Pratt – LB5 with significant upside if he lands a three-down role
- SLB Akeem Davis-Gaither – Injury sleeper at best
- WLB Joe Bachie – No impact
- MLB Markus Bailey – No impact
- SLB Clay Johnston – No impact
Over the past four seasons, Jessie Bates has quietly become one of the league's elite safeties. The 2018 second-round pick was an immediate starter and wasted no time making an impact. He was the fantasy game’s number eight defensive back as a rookie, following that by finishing tenth in 2019 and sixth in 2020. With the team improving substantially on both sides of the ball and far better play from the front seven, in particular, Bates saw his fantasy value take a hit in 2021, dropping into the mid-20s. He managed to tie fellow safety Vonn Bell as the Bengals leading tackler, but that happened only because Logan Wilson missed some games.
Over four seasons as a pro, Bates has 286 tackles and 119 assists, but he had been far more than just a tackling machine. Before last season, he averaged four takeaways and ten pass breakups per year. His splash play numbers fell off considerably in 2021, down to two turnovers and four passes defended. It is safe to expect a rebound in that area, but his days of 90+ combined tackles are likely over, at least as a member of the Bengals.
As I write this, the deadline to strike long-term deals with tagged players is fast approaching, and it looks as if Bates will be playing on a franchise tag. There has been wide speculation that the team’s selection of Daxton Hill at 31 overall was in preparation for life after Bates in 2023. We can cross that bridge when we get to it but for now, look for some bounce back in the splash-play columns and another productive season for Bates as a high-end DB2 with a little upside
Bell was one of the first key pieces they added when the Bengals began laying the foundation for their defensive turnaround in 2020. His leadership, physical presence, and penchant for contributing game-changing plays versus the run followed him from New Orleans. In two seasons with the Bengals, Bell has forced six fumbles, recovered three, and picked off a pass. He even got involved as a pass rusher last season, notching his first sack since joining the Bengals.
When it comes to projecting fantasy value, Bell makes it easy for us. Dating back to his time with New Orleans, he has recorded between 62 and 66 solo tackles in five straight seasons, with at least five turnovers and five passes defended in each of the last three. Even his assist totals have been relatively consistent between 21 and 32, with the move to Cincinnati bumping them up a bit over the last two seasons. The only statistical outliers of Bell’s career are the 48 assists in 2020 and his 2017, when he had just one turnover but made up for it with four and a half sacks. Since joining the Bengals, Bells has ranked 12 in 2020 and 22 in 2021. That is the range he should land in once again in 2022.
Daxton Hill may be the heir apparent at free safety, but what will be his role and that of second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt in 2022? The team will certainly not leave their first two picks on the bench for a year.
Cincinnati entered last season with Chidobe Awuzie on one side, Mike Hilton in the slot, and Trae Waynes expected to start at the other outside spot. It was a good plan with Awuzie and Hilton playing well and holding up their end of the bargain. The problem was that Waynes was never able to get healthy. Thus, Eli Apple ended up starting opposite Awuzie. Apple was tagged as the weak link by many from the start, with the “I told you so” moment coming when he gave up the game-winning score to the Rams in the Super Bowl.
Unless the organization elects to trade Bates, he and Bell are locked in at the safety spots, as is Awuzie on the outside. Cincinnati runs a nickel base defense, leaving two starting spots for Hill, Taylor-Britt, Apple, and Hilton. Something has to give here.
I believe we will see Hill installed as the slot defender. He is a hybrid safety/nickel who would be a great fit for the position. Hill’s speed, coverage versatility, and ability to make plays on the ball from any alignment would give coach Anorumo a plethora of options. This would also get the rookie on the field right away at a spot that fits both his skill set and comfort zone while providing the player and the team some protection from those inevitable rookie mistakes. It might also provide a big enough role for Hill to have some fantasy impact.
Unless he struggles unexpectedly, we are eventually going to see Taylor-Britt at the other starting spot on the outside. How quickly that happens will depend on his development and possibly the ability of Hilton to transition outside. Any way this goes, the Bengals have a good problem with seven potential starters.
When it comes to IDP production at the corner position, Awuzie was a pleasant surprise last season. He played in 13 games, recording a respectable (for a corner) 64 combined tackles. Awuzie scored nine or more points in eight of those games with an average of just over nine and a half. He even gave managers a boost during our playoffs, reaching double-digits in four straight games to close out the regular season.
- FS Jessie Bates – Solid DB2 with some big-play upside
- SS Vonn Bell – Quality second starter
- FS/CB Daxton Hill – Watch list player with DB3 potential
- FS Brandon Wilson – No impact
- SS Tycen Anderson – Developmental rookie
- CB Chidobe Awuzie – Mid-range CB2
- CB Mike Hilton – Marginal expectations
- CB Eli Apple – No impact
- CB Cam Taylor-Britt – Rookie corner watch list
- CB Tre Flowers – No impact
That’s a wrap for Part 22. Coming up next, the Cleveland Browns
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