2022 AFC North Preview: Fantasy Football Outlook, Sleepers, and Busts

Drew DeLuca breaks down the AFC North from a fantasy football perspective.

2021 Review

 

Points per Game 26.3 9th
Offensive Snaps 61.8 T-22nd
2021 Record 10-7 T-9th
2022 Vegas Win Projection 10 T-6th

 

The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals are a study in why upside matters in football, both fantasy and real life. Quarterback Joe Burrow was coming off of a major knee injury, the offensive line was a giant question mark, and the wide receiving corps, albeit talented, was largely unproven: Tee Higgins was coming off a promising rookie season, and newly-drafted Ja’Marr Chase was plagued with an over-publicized case of the drops during the preseason. Running back Joe Mixon played in just six games the year prior and was widely viewed as a perennial tease who just wasn’t a bona fide RB1. Zac Taylor was on the hot seat after posting a dismal 6-25-1 record in his first two seasons as head coach. A ho-hum defense had one of the league’s worst pass rushes in 2020. Anyone who picked them to go to the Super Bowl would’ve been laughed at,  yet here we are. Let’s take a look at what to expect for an encore.

 

Passing Game

 

Passing Yards per Game 256.0 8th
Passing Touchdowns per Game 2.0 T-8th
Pass Attempts per Game 33.2 20th

 

The core of the offense returns largely intact in terms of skill position players. Auden Tate and C. J. Uzomah left town for the Falcons and Jets, respectively, but Chase, Higgins, and the always-underappreciated Tyler Boyd remain. Tate wasn’t a major loss, and Uzomah’s shoes have been more than adequately filled by newcomer Hayden Hurst. Needless to say, Burrow once again has an impressive arsenal to work with. Additionally, the offensive line appears to be better, at least on paper; though it may take a few games for it to gel as a cohesive unit. Add it all up, and Burrow is a no-brainer Top 10 fantasy quarterback and a weekly anchor as a QB1.

The only unsettled piece of this passing game is the third down role in the backfield. The team has suggested that it wants to limit Mixon’s touches on third down this year, and early whispers indicate that second-year running back Chris Evans is primed to unseat the uninspiring Samaje Perine for the gig. We speculate a “hot hand” approach may be employed in which Mixon, Perine, and Evans rotate in and out, depending on game situations.

 

Running Game

 

Rushing Yards per Game 102.5 23rd
Rushing Touchdowns per Game 0.94 T-14th
Rushing Plays per Game  25.6 19th

 

After missing 10 games in 2020, Mixon enjoyed a terrific 2021 season, finishing a Top 5 fantasy running back in all scoring formats. A unicorn as a rare, true workhorse, only Najee Harris and Jonathan Taylor finished the year with more touches.

As alluded to above, however, the Bengals have stated that they plan to give Mixon a rest on third downs more often. This should result in slight decreases from his 2021 totals of carries (292) and receptions (42). However, we expect even greater efficiency out of Mixon as a result of both fresher legs from lighter third-down usage and offensive line upgrades. Fade him at your own risk in 2022.

As far as the third down role goes for fantasy managers, Evans is a worthy speculative add in deeper leagues and should be placed on your waiver wire “watch list” in the event he claims the job out of the gate and enjoys success in Week 1.

 

Sleeper

 

Tyler Boyd (WR52, ADP 123)

It seems odd to choose a 27-year-old who finished as a WR31 or better in each of the last four seasons as this team’s “sleeper.” However, Boyd’s ADP has him weighing in as the WR52 this year, a ranking that sinks lower than his actual floor as the WR3 on one of the NFL’s most electric offenses.

Boyd should once again haul in 65-70 receptions for 750-800 yards and 4-5 touchdowns, making him a flex-worthy play at worst most weeks. If any terrible fate were to befall Chase or Higgins, Boyd once again ascends to familiar WR2 territory in PPR formats (WR16 in 2018; WR18 in 2019). He’s a screaming value in most drafts this year.

 

Deep Sleeper

 

Hayden Hurst, TE

Uzomah enjoyed the best year of his seven-year career in 2021; his 49 catches, 493 yards, and 5 touchdowns were all career bests. After signing a 3-year. $24 million contract with the New York Jets, the Bengals brought in Hayden Hurst on a 1-year, $3.5 million deal, with $2 million guaranteed. Not only did the Bengals save money at the position, they objectively upgraded it:

 

 

Bust Candidate

 

Joe Burrow, QB

Now, I know what you’re thinking.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Didn’t you just say he’s *checks notes* “a no-brainer Top 10 fantasy quarterback and a weekly anchor as a QB1?”

Yes, I did.

Then, how in the name of Akili Smith is Joe freakin’ Burrow a bust candidate?

I’m glad you asked! It does seem a bit crazy on the surface. In the opening paragraph, we laid out how improbable the Bengals’ Super Bowl run was last year; a lot went right for this team in 2021. Even so, Joe Burrow was sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL last year, hitting the turf an astonishing 51 times! Yes, the Bengals upgraded their offensive line this offseason…and yes, Burrow is only just entering his prime with arguably the best wide receiver corps in the league. However, he’s going off the board as the QB6 right now after finishing as the QB10 in fantasy points per game last season (among quarterbacks who played 12 or more games).

With little to no rushing production, Burrow is being drafted at or near his ceiling. He’s not in the same fantasy tier as Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, or Patrick Mahomes, yet he’s often going off the board just after them, at a point in drafts where he’s not the clear best fantasy option available at the position. Superflex leagues aside, as much as we like Burrow, we don’t like taking a mid-tier QB1 ahead of elite tight ends or starting-caliber running backs and wide receivers.

 

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Larry Radloff, Frank Jansky, Andy Lewis + Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire

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