The Bengals successfully bottomed out in 2019 as they moved on from quarterback Andy Dalton, finishing 2-14 and more importantly locking in the #1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Enter LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, fresh off of arguably the greatest statistical performance by a college quarterback in modern history. While most teams struggle through a few transition years of finding a new quarterback, the Bengals will instantly snap into a new era, making them a difficult team to project for 2020.
In Zac Taylor’s first year as head coach, the Bengals finished 30th in points scored and 26th in yards gained with 13 games of Dalton and three games of Ryan Finley under center. How big of a jump they can take will largely rest on the shoulders of Burrow, as he is all but assured to be the starting quarterback from day one. If Burrow takes some lumps as a rookie we could be looking at another below-average offensive season in Cincinnati. But if Burrow is the real deal and an improved offensive line and receiving corps gel early, a meteoric rise on offense isn’t out of the question.
ADP: 140, QB18
Joe Burrow smashed records on his way to the Heisman Trophy in 2019, lighting up the SEC with 65 total touchdowns, 5,671 passing yards, and a sparkling 76% completion percentage. The few knocks on Burrow would be his less than elite arm strength and his lack of a track record before last year’s breakout. But Burrow makes up for his lack of arm strength with a mastery of his offense, excellent pocket presence, and a natural feel for the position. In theory, Burrow is the type of quarterback that could make an immediate impact at the NFL level.
For fantasy purposes, Burrow checks off a couple of important boxes. While he won’t be mistaken for Lamar Jackson with the ball in his hands, he does project as a quarterback with some rushing upside. Burrow rushed for 767 yards over his two seasons at LSU, which is an even more impressive number when you consider that the NCAA counts sacks as negative rushing yards. Throw in 12 total rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons, and we may be looking at a quarterback that can separate himself from the pack in fantasy football. Another plus is that Burrow manned a high volume passing offense in college, and joins a Bengals offense that was pass-heavy in 2019. Cincinnati had the sixth-most passing attempts in the NFL last season, and while much of that can be contributed to playing from behind on their way to just two wins, Vegas sees the Bengals as a five or six-win team this year, so pass-heavy game scripts may still be the norm.
Burrow is being drafted as a QB2 in fantasy football, leaving him with plenty of room to exceed expectations. Kyler Murray, last year’s number one overall pick, finished the season as the QB8 overall and the QB12 on a points per game basis. While Burrow may not match Murray’s 544 yards rushing, he may not finish too far off of that number. And Murray’s 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air feel very attainable for Burrow, who may be the more complete passer coming into the league. Burrow is an excellent target for the late-round quarterback philosophy, and in superflex leagues provides an upside QB2 locked into 16 games started barring health.
The Bengals’ offensive line takes a leap with Jonah Williams‘s return to health, Tyler Boyd fills the Justin Jefferson role from Burrow’s days at LSU, and A.J. Green and Tee Higgins provide dangerous outside options, giving the Bengals a lethal three-wide receiver set. Burrow is forced to air it out with the Bengals’ poor defense getting gashed on a weekly basis, giving him high passing volume on an above-average offense. A poor man’s Murray on the ground, Burrow combines that with a rookie-year Baker Mayfield performance through the air and is a top 10 fantasy quarterback in 2020.
The offensive line remains a mess, and Burrow is battered on a weekly basis and misses some time with injury. Even worse, he becomes nervous in the pocket, and with Green unable to return to health and the shortened offseason stunting Higgins’s development, he lacks the weapons to make up for the lack of time to throw. The Bengals resort to a conservative offense to protect Burrow, hurting his volume as well. His season looks more like Mayfield’s second season with the Browns, and much like Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland, Cincinnati moves on from head coach Zac Taylor in an attempt to save their franchise quarterback.
2020 Projection: 348 completions, 545 attempts, 3975 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 16 interceptions; 65 rushes, 305 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns
ADP: 12.7, RB9
Joe Mixon had a strange 2019 season, and his RB13 overall finish is misleading since he was a fantasy team-wrecker in the first half of the season. Mixon was RB19 on a points per game basis last season, which feels like a more accurate representation of his season as a whole. Mixon’s talents as a rusher leave very little to debate, as he grades out as one of the best pure runners in the league. Per FantasyData, Mixon ranked first among all running backs with 103 evaded tackles, fourth at the position with a 32.9% juke rate, and ranked fourth among all running backs with 36 yards created per game. With that kind of ability combined with very little competition behind him on the depth chart, Mixon sounds like a no-doubt selection in the middle of the first round of fantasy drafts. However, his team and his usage in the passing game have held him back from a complete breakout.
Despite coming into the league with the reputation of an asset in the passing game, the Bengals have surprisingly not fed Mixon the number of targets that we would like to see for fantasy purposes. In his three year career, Mixon topped out at 55 targets in 2018 and has yet to reach 300 receiving yards in any one of his three NFL seasons. By all accounts, he has been impressive when called upon, as he ranked fourth among all running backs with 30 or more targets with 5.01 fantasy points per target, per FantasyData. After receiving a 73% snap share in 2018 that number did dip to 62.2% in 2019, so Mixon isn’t quite at that elite level of usage for a running back either. Coupled with a Bengals team that has often had to play from behind, and projects to be a losing team yet again in 2020, and the warts are beginning to add up for a true Mixon breakout. With the premium put on running backs in drafts this year, Mixon is a more-than-reasonable selection at the end of the first round of drafts. If you are counting on a true league-winning breakout for Mixon, however, we will need to see the Bengals use him in a different way than they have so far in his NFL career. It’s worth noting, at the time of this writing, Mixon is looking for a new contract from the Bengals. He hasn’t threatened to hold-out at this point, but we should keep an eye on the news out of Cincinnati.
Burrow looks like a professional quarterback from day one and makes this the best offense that Mixon has been a part of in his Bengals career. Burrow carries over his affinity for targeting running backs from his LSU days, and Mixon sets career highs in targets, receptions, and receiving yards. Cincinnati’s high-octane offense provides Mixon more scoring opportunities than ever before, and he cracks double-digit touchdowns for the first time. On a team that is still in the running for a wild-card spot late in the season, Mixon finds himself playing more snaps than last year and even gets to kill the clock on the ground in some wins. He finally puts together a breakout season and finishes as the RB5 overall.
Mixon’s passing-game usage doesn’t increase, despite the Bengals being more pass-heavy than ever with Burrow under center. Cincinnati features Mixon less and less as they try to develop Burrow, but the wins don’t come immediately with their rookie quarterback slinging it 35 times a game in catch-up mode. Mixon has fewer of those 30 carry games from the end of 2019 and finishes as a touchdown-dependent RB2 in 2020. Fantasy owners begin to wonder if Mixon’s prime is being wasted on a team that isn’t utilizing him properly.
2020 Projection: 268 carries, 1175 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns; 55 targets, 45 receptions, 345 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.
ADP: 84, WR34
The hype is beginning to grow on Tyler Boyd in the fantasy community, which unfortunately may cause his ADP to rise as drafts approach. But he remains a target of mine in almost every draft and provides an excellent floor if you can grab him as the WR3 on your team. Boyd has very quietly amassed two 1,000 yard seasons before turning 26 years old, all while playing with Andy Dalton, Ryan Finley, and Jeff Driskel at quarterback during his career. Boyd can probably pay off his WR34 ADP even if Burrow struggles this year. And if Burrow hits the ground running, we could be looking at a massive season out of Boyd, especially in PPR leagues.
Boyd saw the 7th most targets in the NFL last year and has very little competition in the slot from his fellow Bengals wide receivers. A.J. Green, if he can stay healthy, will spend a decent chunk of time lined up out wide, and Green’s presence would likely only help to open up space for Boyd to operate. Tee Higgins looks like a promising rookie, but in his first year in the league in a COVID-19 altered offseason, it would not be a surprise to see him struggle out of the gate. John Ross III has battled injuries and inconsistency and plays a different role in the offense than Boyd anyway. Burrow leaned on a similar player to Boyd at LSU in Justin Jefferson, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Boyd is his favorite target year-one in the NFL. If Green struggles to regain his form and Higgins is a slow learner at the pro level, Boyd could be looking at another massive target share, similar to his 25% mark from 2019. There’s a good chance that a 25% target share with 16 games of Burrow is better than what Boyd dealt with last year, and while Boyd is closer to Jarvis Landry than Chris Godwin, the volume alone should propel Boyd into the best season of his career and a potential breakout campaign.
The offense is improved with Burrow under center, but the rest of the receiving corps struggles with inconsistencies and injuries. Boyd is the constant all season long and improves on his 2019 efficiency on a similar target share. He approaches 100 catches and 1,1oo yards, adds in a few more scores, and finishes as a consistent back-end WR1 or high-end WR2.
Green and company stay on the field more than last year, providing Boyd with more competition for targets. The offense struggles, yet unlike 2019 there are too many mouths to feed in order to replicate Boyd’s 25% target share. His season looks like a disappointing Landry season from years past, and Boyd is a low upside option with a mediocre weekly floor.
2020 Projection: 135 targets, 90 receptions, 1050 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns
ADP: 65, WR28
There really isn’t a ton of analysis to be done on A.J. Green. From 2011-2015, Green was among the elite fantasy receivers in the league, topping 1,000 yards each year and averaging nine touchdowns per season. There were warning signs in 2016 when he tore his hamstring and missed the final six games of the season. Green rebounded in 2017 to play all 16 games, though his 75 receptions were a bit low for his standards. The real trouble started in 2018, however, when Green suffered a toe injury in Week 8 and missed the next three games. He returned to the field only to reinjure the same toe in his first game back and was placed on injured reserve after playing in just nine games. Green came into last season with legitimate injury concerns and did nothing to prove that he had overcome them, as he tore ligaments in his ankle during training camp that caused him to miss the entire 2019 season. Green says that the injuries are behind him and that he has been running routes since February. But after having missed 23 games over the past two seasons, there is reason to worry whether Green still possesses the elite upside that would worth taking on his substantial risk. In such a deep wide receiver position in 2020, I will be looking at healthy players with legitimate upside and letting other drafters find out if Green has anything left in the tank at age 32.
Green shakes the injury bug, is rejuvenated by Burrow, and looks like the dynamic player from the past. It’s hard to see a full 16 games from him at a full snap rate even in the best-case scenario, but 14 or so games of elite production on a slightly lowered snap count would still prove valuable. He ends up with around 900 receiving yards and chips in some consistent touchdown scoring as a trusted red zone option.
The Bengals handle Green cautiously, preventing him from receiving a full starter’s share of snaps early on. Injuries hit again, and Green is in and out of the lineup throughout the season and lacks the burst that he once showed. He clogs a spot on your roster for much of the year, and you’re left wondering if he still possesses that upside that you have been holding out hope for.
2020 Projection: 90 targets, 54 receptions, 756 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns
ADP: 196, WR83
In a normal offseason, the Tee Higgins hype might be ramping up as fantasy football drafts approach. The Bengals drafted Higgins at the top of the second round, and it would be logical to see him and Joe Burrow begin to develop some chemistry in training camp as fellow rookies being thrown to the fire in year-one. With this chaotic and shortened offseason, and potentially just one preseason game to work on their timing together, betting on a rookie wide receiver year-one has suddenly become an even scarier proposition. At nearly 6’4″ and 216 pounds, Higgins profiles as a contested-catch specialist, and Burrow had success giving his receivers a chance to make plays at LSU when he found them in single coverage. Higgins was often on the bench in the second half as Clemson blew out opponents in 2019, so he could end up a value for the Bengals in the second round. But he is pretty clearly outside of the top tier of rookie pass-catchers, and a slow start in this disjointed year would be very predictable. When you get to the final picks of your draft, depending on league size, you should be shooting for upside. In that case, I wouldn’t fault you for taking a shot on Higgins, especially if you drafted Burrow and wanted a cheap stack that you could move on from quickly if things don’t work out. But for most leagues, Higgins can likely go undrafted, though I would put him on my watchlist immediately after the draft.
Green loses another year to injury and the Bengals are desperate for an outside threat to pair with Boyd. John Ross III is inconsistent and/or injured, and Higgins provides a contested-catch presence with much better athleticism than fellow wide receiver Auden Tate. While it isn’t always pretty, Higgins makes plays and develops chemistry with Burrow, and by the end of the year is a streaming WR3/flex option with promising upside in dynasty leagues.
The offseason proves to be too much to overcome and we go most of the year with Higgins operating behind Green, Boyd, and Ross as the WR4 in Cincinnati. Outside of some designed red zone targets, Higgins doesn’t make an impact, and he enters year two with a concerning lack of production under his belt.
2020 Projection: 75 targets, 45 receptions, 540 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns
ADP: 330, TE37
If you squint hard enough, especially considering his ADP, you can see reasons for optimism for C.J. Uzomah. At age 27, he is approaching the years where tight ends finally start to contribute, and while he took a step back last year to just 40 total targets across 16 games, he does have a respectable 104 combined targets over his last two seasons. And with an 87% snap share in 2018 and a 62% snap share in 2019, Uzomah is a safe bet to be on the field consistently, giving him a chance to gel with Burrow. But at the end of the day, Uzomah will go undrafted in your league and probably lacks any meaningful upside. He’s interesting depth in dynasty leagues, and someone to keep your eye on early in the season while he sits on waivers in your redraft league.
Burrow likes using his tight end as a security blanket and Uzomah plays a healthy share of snaps. Uzomah catches a touchdown here or there and is a poor man’s Kyle Rudolph, giving him some upside heading into the 2021 season.
Second-year tight end Drew Sample sees the field more as the better run blocker, Uzomah’s snap share drops below 50%, and the tight ends are not a factor in the passing game. Cincinnati enters the 2021 NFL Draft as a team likely to address the tight end position with an early pick.
2020 Projection: 50 targets, 33 receptions, 325 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)