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We’re previewing every NFL team to get you ready for the 2021 season. Our analysts will tackle pressing fantasy questions and team win totals, in order from the squad with the least amount of fantasy relevancy all the way to the most talented team. Next up, the 13th-ranked Cincinnati Bengals.
Expected to ready in Week 1 coming off a gruesome knee injury, Joe Burrow is our 13th ranked fantasy QB. What needs to happen for him to break into the top 10, maybe even the top five finishers at the position?
Liz: Relative to the game’s elite dual-threats, Burrow’s lack of mobility (3.7 carries/gm, QB16) slightly caps his ceiling. But with pinpoint accuracy, Burrow’s arm can produce for fantasy managers. He may not have a cannon, but as last year’s 7.6 accuracy rating (QB9) and 65.3% completion percentage demonstrated, he can move the ball. In fact, he moved it enough to make history, breaking the NFL rookie record for number of completed passes (221) by midseason.
Averaging over 40 attempts per game, Burrow also managed nearly 270 passing yards per contest. Yet, his YPA was only 6.7. That’s because he struggled downfield, posting a deep ball completion percentage of 20 (QB36). With an improved offensive line that provides more time for him to plant his feet, and the addition of former college teammate (and ace ball tracker) Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s passing numbers should get a boost. Cracking the top-five would require an alignment of all the planets, but if he shakes off rust early he could smoothly roll into the top-10.
Andy: Burrow simply needs to play a full season and the Bengals' offense needs to operate largely as it did with him at the controls in 2020. He averaged 40.4 pass attempts per game as a rookie, which would get him awfully close to 700 total attempts in a 17-game season. Also, Cincinnati's offense averaged 70.7 plays per game in his ten starts, the third-highest in the league. So we're talking about an extremely high-volume passing attack in a fast-paced offense with a deep, young, and hyper-talented receiving corps. Burrow is a capable rusher as well (or at least, he was pre-injury), so it's not outrageous to forecast 300 yards on the ground with 4-6 TDs. If the team's O-line takes a step forward and Burrow himself remains healthy, a top-five positional finish isn't out of the question.
Scott: Burrow obviously needs to play a full season, probably keep some of his willingness to run, and have his young, talented wideouts play up to the press clippings. It's certainly all plausible. The Bengals haven't looked this frisky in a while.
Whether it’s injuries or a poor offensive line, Joe Mixon always seems to leave fantasy players wanting more. Now, however, he’ll be on the best offense of his career. He’s never finished higher than RB9 in a season. Does he eclipse that in 2021?
Andy: For years, one of the foundational plays in the Bengals offense has been to get Mixon the ball in an impossible situation behind the line of scrimmage, then watch him miraculously gain three yards. He's been a much better real-life runner than his fantasy totals often suggest. Mixon's performance in December of 2019, at the conclusion of an ugly season for Cincinnati, was absolutely heroic for fantasy purposes. Over five games that month, he averaged 132.2 scrimmage yards per game, catching 14 balls and crossing the goal line four times. He can be that guy again. He's just entering his age-25 season, so there's no reason to think he's cooked. No other back on this team's roster can do anything as well as Mixon does everything, so I'm not especially worried about his workload.
Bottom line: Emphatic yes, Mixon still has top-8 upside. If Cincinnati's offense is even close to as good as we think it can be, Mixon can reach double-digit TDs and pile up yardage.
Scott: All Mixon probably needs is good health and the offense to play to the octane level we all expect. Look at the depth chart behind Mixon; it's wafer-thin. Mixon's talent has never been the question, though the Bengals' offensive line has generally been poor during his time here. I'm open to selecting Mixon anytime from the mid-second round onward.
Liz: Mixon went from evading 6.4 tackles per game (RB1) in 2019 to 4.7 per game in 2020. That reduction, obviously, wasn’t because the o-line got better, but because Joe Burrow added electricity to the offense and prevented opposing defenses from regularly stacking the box. In fact, last year Mixon recorded a light front carry rate of nearly 60 percent (RB7). Add Ja’Marr Chase’s field-stretching ability and that number should only grow.
Plus, with Gio Bernard off the squad, Mixon’s work in the passing game figures to receive a boost. The offensive line is still far from good (or even average), but assuming the foot sprain is fully healed Mixon has the elusiveness, power, and pass-catching skills necessary to clear 1,100 rushing yards and flirt with his 2018 numbers.
Here’s how the Bengals receivers are ranked: Tee Higgins (26), Ja’Marr Chase (32), and Tyler Boyd (36). Will they all be fantasy viable in 2021? If not, who will stand out, and who will be left wanting?
Scott: They're all viable, because this offense doesn't have multiple backs hogging fantasy value, and there's no tight end to get in the way. Maybe it's not the narrowest tree in the AFC, but it's certainly not the widest. And it's possible a leaky defense might force the Bengals offense to play in regular shootouts.
Liz: Top-11 in pace (39.3), top-3 in aggressiveness (21.5%), and with a bottom-10 defense, there will be plenty of opportunities for each of these receivers to post numbers. Higgins’ presence as a red-zone threat gives him a slight edge over the rest of the corps (he’s my WR26), but all three players are projected to catch over 80 balls and rack up between 900 (Boyd) and 1,100 (Chase) yards.
Andy: Well, it would be a little strange if we ranked 'em all as WR3s for fantasy, yet declared that not all could be viable. I don't think there's any question that these three can be every-week fantasy plays. I'll refer you to the Burrow blurbs above, in which we mentioned that this team is likely to approach 700 pass attempts and play with pace. For me, Chase and Higgins are both very much in the WR2 conversation. I like these guys better than consensus, ranking them No. 24 and No. 25 at the position.
Cincinnati Bengals projected 2021 fantasy contributors
QB: Joe Burrow
RB: Joe Mixon
WR: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd
TE: Drew Sample
Cincinnati Bengals O/U on 6.5 team win total from BetMGM
Scott: The number is in the right place, and this is a no-play for me. I'm tempted to go OVER, because this is an offense you can fall in love with. But I'm not sure Zac Taylor is a good head coach, that messy Bengals defense (30th in DVOA last year) will need time to fix, and every other AFC North roster looks like a contender.
Follow Scott: @scott_pianowski
Follow Liz: @LizLoza_FF
Follow Andy: @andybehrens