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Cincinnati Bengals Writers
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The Bengals run a base outside zone scheme that relies heavily on multiple wide receiver sets and play-action bootleg elements. The team ran 11 personnel (three wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back) on 77% of plays, second-most in the league behind the Rams. They have one of the most locked-in personnel sets: Joe Mixon trends around 80% of the snaps, while the three wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd trend north of 90% when available. Mixon finished third in the NFL with 292 carries and set a career-high with 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns. The wide receiver trio were the only teammates to see above 90 targets at the position. The result was the seventh highest-scoring offense at 27.1 points per game. The offense leaned on the passing game, which also placed seventh at 259 yards per game. After the calendar flipped to December, Joe Burrow got red hot, averaging 324 yards per game from weeks 13 to 17 (in week 18, the Bengals played backups with the division locked up), but the rush game disappeared out of the offense, dropping from 112 yards per game to 86. The offensive line was the question, with Joe Burrow getting sacked 55 times, the third-most in the league. The team addressed the unit in free agency, bringing in La'el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras.
Joe Burrow recorded a QB1 season, finishing 10th at 20.52 points per game. A feat considering he brought no threat to rush following his ACL injury that ended his 2020 season after ten games. He shined when the spotlight was the brightest; with 25.31 points per game from weeks 13 to 17, he led all quarterbacks during the fantasy playoffs. The primary question around the offense will be a potential return to more balance from early in the season or if a permanent shift has happened to make this into the league's heaviest in attempts. The Bengals only finished 20th in pass attempts yet were seventh in total passing yards. Keeping that efficiency on increased volume raises intriguing questions on the ceiling in this offense.
Brandon Allen represents one of the steepest drop-offs to a backup quarterback for fantasy purposes. He is a career 56% passer with 6.6 intended air yards per attempt in his only significant playing time after Burrow's injury in 2020, representing a 12% drop from Burrow's completions and 1.5 yards shorter than Burrow's throw depth. The offense has typically functioned as a low percentage dink and dunk attack when Allen takes over. Coupled with 4.6 average rush yards per game as a starter, Allen struggles to see utility even in deep Superflex formats. Jake Browning is a three-year veteran who has not thrown an NFL pass.
Joe Mixon finally put it all together in 2021, with a total finish that ranked him as RB4 on the season. He set career highs in rushing yards (1,205), touchdowns (13), and receiving yards (314), making his first Pro Bowl. He is locked into one of the more stable workshares in the league, projecting to roughly 70% of the team's carries and an additional 10% of the targets. The only significant injury he has encountered in the NFL was the foot injury that ended his 2020 season in a haze of questions.
Samaje Perine served as a clear handcuff and compliment to Mixon in 2021, playing roughly 20% of the snaps. His real value is in the passing game; he averaged close to two targets per game while Mixon only averaged three. If Mixon misses time, games like week 16 in 2020 with 136 total yards and two touchdowns show Perine has a usable fantasy ceiling. After Perine, the group shifts to a stable of young backs with hazy outlooks. Chris Evans is the most interesting; he saw nominal usage in the passing game during his rookie season, catching 15 passes for 151 yards but emerged as a kick returner during the postseason with 185 yards combined against the Raiders and Titans. He could arise in a role like Gio Bernard held for years. Perine and Evans should see rosters in the deepest of fantasy leagues, but after them, it will be a wait-and-see on who makes the team roster.
- Mike Thomas, Trenton Irwin, Stanley Morgan, Trent Taylor, Jaivon Heiligh, Kwamie Lassiter II, Kendric Pryor, Jack Sorenson
The Bengals were the only team to finish with three top 36 wide receivers. The locked-in nature of the rotation and the team's heavy usage of three-wide receiver sets allow all three opportunities. Ja'Marr Chase is the clear budding superstar. In the Super Bowl era, Chase broke the record for rookie receiving yards with 1,429 and set the single-game rookie record with 266. Chase finished fourth in yards and third in touchdowns despite placing 20th in targets. Tee Higgins showed improvement within the offense as a compliment, adding a reception and 22 receiving yards per game over his rookie season. He landed on the fringe of a WR1 season, at 15.7 PPR points per game. Tyler Boyd rounds out the trio and almost exclusively plays the slot. He has seen his targets and yardage drop for four consecutive seasons, the victim of the team continuing to add top-end talent. Still, a week four game with Tee Higgins out of the lineup showed Boyd's ceiling is still present; he posted a season's best 11 targets, nine receptions, and 118 yards.
Weeks three and four offered the only real glimpse of how this offense would operate without one of the three starting wide receivers available. The team responded with a shift to heavier packages, playing 12 personnel nearly 10% more often than usual. The four returning players comprising the backups (Mike Thomas, Trent Taylor, Stanley Morgan, and Trenton Irwin) combined for 138 yards in 2021. Mike Thomas stands as the fourth wide receiver; he saw minor glimpses of production to start 2020 before injuries robbed much of his season. Taylor projects as a slot but is three full seasons from a rookie season where he showed promise in 2018. The other pieces in the room are unproven players who have yet to flash in the NFL.
Hurst is a former first-round pick who showed glimpses of a breakout with Atlanta in 2019 with a 56-571-6 line that finished TE10 in total points. Adding Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in 2021 stopped any further ascension for Hurst. This scheme has a ceiling on tight end production; C.J. Uzomah was the primary tight end and fell in as a distant fourth option in the passing game, averaging slightly under four targets per game. The team did not rely on the position in the red zone, with just nine targets ranking fourth and half as many as Chase and Higgins saw as the team leaders. Drew Sample was a second-round pick in 2019. Even if injury creates perceived opportunity, his primary role is a blocker in the run game, with one career touchdown and three career games above 45 receiving yards. The rest of the tight ends are depth pieces with minimal paths to fantasy relevance.
- LT Jonah Williams
- LG Cordell Volson [R]
- C Ted Karras
- RG Alex Cappa
- RT La'el Collins
- OT Isaiah Prince, OT D'Ante Smith, IOL Hakeem Adeniji, IOL Trey Hill, OL Jackson Carman
An offensive line overhaul was the primary task for the Bengals, and they aggressively addressed the need during free agency, adding La'el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras. Collins pairs with Jonah Williams to give the Bengals one of the best tackle tandems in the league. Both are potent run blockers that should give Joe Mixon some of the best line play in his career. Karras graded out very well in pass blocking to help solidify the line's interior for Burrow. This rebuilt right side will join with left tackle Jonah Williams and left guard Cordell Volson (Fourth round, North Dakota State) to create a completely revamped group. This line has the potential to be decent, but they have to gel.
Evan McPherson struggled to begin the season, with two high-profile misses costing the game against Green Bay. But once he settled in, he became the most reliable kicker in the league in the second half of the season, hitting 37 of 39 from week six through the playoffs. The playoffs showed his potential as he was 14 for 14, including multiple clutch kicks against the Titans and Chiefs that decided games.
Brandon Wilson has served as one of the best kick returners in the NFL over the last several seasons, leading the NFL in average per return at 31.3 in 2019. Chris Evans flashed glimpses of potential late in the season, particularly against Tennessee in the playoffs, with an average of 27 yards per attempt.
Irwin and Taylor split duties behind the departed Darius Phillips. Neither showed home run potential in the return game.
The Bengals were a middle-of-the-pack defense by most any measure, but their transformation into a winning team made them a strong play against weak offenses like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Denver. They went defense-heavy in the draft, adding safety Dax Hill (Michigan) in the first round, which helps ease worries about a contract dispute with franchise-tagged stalwart safety Jessie Bates III, and otherwise adding speed to the secondary. They'll return all of the important pieces of a defense that was a true team effort in the Super Bowl run, and they open with the Steelers offense, which should be one of the worst in the league. Put them on your list of leadoff hitters in your streaming defense approach.
- DE Cameron Sample, DE Khalid Kareem, DE Joseph Ossai, DE Jeffery Gunter, DE/DT Zachary Carter, DT Tyler Shelvin, DT Josh Tupou
What a difference a year made for the Bengals' defense. They went from bottom third in most categories in 2020 to top third in many of them. Nothing was more impressive than the pass rush turnaround that lept from dead last with 17 sacks in 2020 to a top 12 finish with 42 in 2021. Much of the turnaround can be credited to the addition of Trey Hendrickson, whose 14 sacks nearly matched the team total from the previous year. With 27.5 sacks over the last two seasons, Hendrickson has established himself as one of the league's premier edge rushers. He has improved as a run defender since his early days in New Orleans and is a solid, three-down defensive end. At the other defensive end spot, the Bengals have Sam Hubbard, an excellent run stuffer with some punch as a pass rusher. This duo gives Cincinnati a good balance of toughness and firepower on the outside. The team moved on from tackle Larry Ogunjobi who was a strong contributor when healthy but had struggled to stay on the field in recent years. That decision was made easier by the play of D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill, who were key components in a run defense that went from near the bottom in 2020 to the middle of the pack in 2021. Reader is a 347-pound roadblock that can both get off blocks to make plays in tight spaces and soak up double teams to keep the linebackers clean. Hill was brought in as a free agent to be the third man in the interior rotation. He quickly proved to be more, taking over the starting spot down the stretch and finishing with 5.5 sacks. The Bengals will look to build on what was a turnaround season in 2021. The defensive line is rock solid and should go a long way toward an even better 2022.
Cincinnati did not get a lot of production from their backup linemen last year, but that does not necessarily reflect their talent level but rather their lack of opportunity. This team is not worried about rotating a lot of guys along the line. Cameron Sample was the third defensive end, averaging fewer than 24 snaps per game. He should continue in that role though he could be challenged by last year's third-round pick, Joseph Ossai, who missed last season with a knee injury. The coaches will be looking for someone to fill the vacancy in the interior rotation. With Mike Daniels also gone, the job is wide open. Josh Tupou is a 1-technique type, as is second-year man Tyler Shelvin. Rookie third-round pick Zachary Carter played mostly at defensive end in college but has the versatility to move inside. In many ways, his play is similar to that of Ogunjobi. He can spell the outside guys if called upon, but Carter's biggest contribution might come as an interior lineman on passing downs.
As long as they have Logan Wilson as their middle linebacker, the Bengals will be good at the second level. Wilson was a third-round steal in 2020. He had a significant role as a rookie before becoming the full-time starter last year. Sideline to sideline range, excellent cover skills, and a knack for the big play make Wilson a rising star. His four interceptions last year tied Darius Leonard for most in the league by a linebacker. Germaine Pratt starts on the weak side with Akeem Davis-Gaither coming on in three linebacker packages and/or in many third-down situations. Pratt is the physical, run-stuffing presence and a great fit for his role as a two-down, early-down factor. Davis-Gaither is a linebacker trapped in the body of a strong safety. He might be the fastest of Cincinnati's linebackers and excels in coverage. He saw a ton of action in 2022 before going down with a foot injury around midseason. They will never be perennial pro-bowl guys, but these two fit well into their respective roles and solidify the position.
The Bengals starting linebackers are rock solid but there are questions about depth. This is a young unit top to bottom, without a significant veteran presence beyond the starters. With two seasons under his belt, Markus Bailey has the most NFL experience among the backups. He and Joe Bachie each made starts as injury replacements last year. Both were adequate as short-term options but fell short of being impressive. The rest of the linebacker room consists of undrafted rookies and second-year guys that have not seen the field in a game yet.
- CB Cam Taylor-Britt [R], CB Tre Flowers, CB Jalen Davis, FS/CB Daxton Hill [R], SS Brandon Wilson, FS Trayvon Henderson
The Cincinnati secondary took a big step in the right direction last year, but they are not a finished product. Chidobe Awuzie was a great free-agent addition at one corner and quickly became a cornerstone. Eli Apple is penciled in at the other starting spot on the outside, but that will likely change before we get to September. Apple was supposed to be a backup in 2021. He was forced into action when Trae Waynes was unable to get healthy. With the team using their first two draft picks on defensive backs, we can expect some changes here. Mike Hilton was signed last year to handle the slot corner role, which he did well. The coaching staff would like to leave him in that role if possible. Much will depend on how the other pieces fit into the secondary. The team would like to see rookie Cam Taylor-Britt step right into the outside role, but Hilton could play there if called upon. Veterans Vonn Bell and Jesse Bates are arguably among the best safety tandems in the league. Bell is the prototypical, physical, in-the-box strong safety that does everything well. Run support is his biggest strength but Bell also brings some playmaking ability. With a sack and five turnovers, 2021 was the second biggest of Bell's six years in terms of big-play production. Bates saw his box score numbers fall slightly in 2021, only because the team around him improved considerably. He remains one of the league's best free safeties and vital to the team's potential success in 2022.
While pecking order and positional fit are an ongoing puzzle, there is no doubt this team has both talent and depth to work with. Both second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt, and veteran Tre Flowers will be in the mix for the starting spot opposite Awuzie. Taylor-Britt will enter camp as the favorite among the challengers based on talent and draft status. Flowers is a long shot but has plenty of starting experience. First-round pick Daxton Hill is the wildcard here. The generally accepted belief is he was drafted to take over next season for Jessie Bates III, who is playing on the franchise tag - if he accepts playing without a long-term deal, which is not certain. The question is, where does he fit in this year's plan? One possible option would be the slot, allowing Mike Hilton to move outside. Hill could also get a look at the outside corner spot. He may not be a full-time starter this year but it is a safe bet the rookie will have a significant role.