The Bengals visit Cleveland with the line opening at 46 before it quickly dropped down to 43.5; as I write this, the Browns are favored by 6.0 points. Vegas is recognizing that despite Week 1’s thrashing by Baltimore, the Browns are likely to be a solid defense this year (they have basically everyone from last year’s team, which was projected to be one of the better defenses in the league). But, as JM likes to talk about when he writes about tributaries and barbell-shaped distributions of outcomes, the Bengals offense is loaded with talent. While they likely don’t do well the majority of the time, there are plenty of outcomes in which they exceed expectations. A shootout is within the range of outcomes here. Let’s dig in.
In Week 1 Nick Chubb played 48% of the snaps, had 10 carries, and one target, while Kareem Hunt played 49% of the snaps, had 13 carries, and four targets. Figuring this situation out is going to be one of the keys of the slate. It’s reasonable to think that the Browns favored Hunt as they were down big early in the game, but Hunt also saw more carries, not just more targets. Hunt even saw nine first-down carries compared to seven for Chubb. In a game that the Browns project to lead, it’s likely that Chubb sees more work; but this isn’t a situation where Chubb is the two-down back who will always see 20+ touches in games the Browns win, while Hunt is the “come from behind” back. Hunt is going to be involved at a high level. Last year, Hunt was activated in week 10; from that point on, we saw:
|Week||Chubb rushes||Chubb targets||Hunt rushes||Hunt targets|
Note how Chubb’s workload decreased toward the end of the year. In that 8-week period, Hunt outscored Chubb half the time, and their total DK points over that 8-weeks was 115.8 for Chubb versus 101.4 for Hunt. Chubb has greater TD equity, and if the Browns win this game he could certainly push for 20 touches, but this really is a split backfield. Chubb should be prioritized in builds that focus on the Browns winning and leading the whole game, while Hunt should be prioritized in builds with more Bengals. Fortunately, they are both priced attractively on DK at $7,600 and $7,400, and the matchup is great as home favorites against a team that should struggle to stop the run all year long.
In the pass game, one of the challenges with using the Browns is their wide distribution of targets. In Week 1, Baker Mayfield threw 39 passes and targeted 10 different receivers. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will get theirs (10 and 6 targets in Week 1), as there’s not much else to depend on in this offense. Guys named KhaDarel Hodge and Stephen Carlson, none of whom I had ever heard of prior to researching this slate, all saw targets. David Njoku was put on IR, which should result in a bump to Austin Hooper as well as Hodge as the new TE2; but recognize that this is a very split offense with unpredictable target shares. Hooper stands out as overpriced at $6,800 (normally we see non-Kelce/Kittle/Ertz/Andrews TEs priced in the high 5ks to mid 6k range; those are guys like Noah Fant on Monday night, who have much more dependable target shares than Hooper does). The Browns are one of the most frustrating offenses for large showdown tournaments because of the wide distribution of volume. All of Rashard Higgins, Bryant, Hodge, and Carlson are viable MME dart throws, but they are also all very thin plays. Keep in mind that the Bengals last year faced one of the lower numbers of receiver targets in the league; teams could run all over them and their offense struggled to keep games competitive. These dart throws are more likely to pay off in a game script in which the Bengals put up points and force more pass attempts for Baker Mayfield, so utilize them in MME builds accordingly. Based on talent, target volume, and matchup, Odell Beckham is my favorite receiver play. He saw 10 targets in Week 1, we know his upside is massive, and he’s just $8,200.
On the Bengals’ side, Joe Mixon put up an incredibly disappointing Week 1 score despite a good matchup and a close game throughout, which leaves him at just $8,600 despite a strong role. He played 59% of the snaps and saw 19 carries and two targets; a solid workload that he just wasn’t able to do much with. He’s running behind a not-great offensive line as a road underdog against a good defense, which is likely to result in him being lower owned than he should be relative to his chances of success. He’s not a safe play here, but his ceiling is as high as anyone in this game if the Bengals can keep the game relatively close and if touchdown variance goes his way. Giovani Bernard saw one carry and five targets, and that kind of usage makes him a low floor, low ceiling option who will struggle to outscore the kickers if he doesn’t get into the end zone.
Leading up to the season, the Bengals talked about rotating their receivers early in the year to ease guys in; we saw some of that. Eight different players saw targets, but out of Joe Burrow’s 36 pass attempts, 24 went to the guys we would expect: AJ Green got nine while Tyler Boyd, John Ross, and C.J. Uzomah all saw five each. With seven going to the running backs, that only left four total targets for the rest of the receiving corps, so the distribution here is a bit narrower than that of the Browns. Most exciting to me is AJ Green seeing nine targets and not getting hurt; a healthy Green is one of the best receivers in the league. However, one point of caution is that he only played 66% of the snaps (Ross and Boyd played 84% and 81%, respectively). He was heavily targeted while on the field, but the lower snap count introduces some additional variance to his floor. Boyd, Ross, and Uzomah were the guys who were on the field for almost all of the snaps, and I would be remiss if I forgot to note that we’ve liked to attack the Browns with tight ends for years. I actually really love Ross here at just $5,200 as well, as he led the Bengals skill players in snaps and has plenty of ceiling as a deep threat receiver. If going after the depth guys here, I wouldn’t be deceived by Mike Thomas’ three targets, as he, Tee Higgins, and Auden Tate all played an equal 22% of the snaps. Backup TE Drew Sample played 35%, and is my preferred punt play in the Bengals receiving corps (again, all are viable as MME dart throws if you’re digging deep for uniqueness).
Ways this game could play out:
The way this game is most likely to play out is that the Browns take a comfortable lead early while Joe Burrow struggles against a tough Browns defense. This makes Chubb especially viable, and really downgrades the ancillary receivers on the Browns (everyone except Beckham, Landry, and maaaaybe Hooper). But there are other ways this could go….
The Browns could win in a dominating fashion. Their defense has lots of talent, and while Burrow has a high ceiling, he is also a rookie QB behind a shaky offensive line; not exactly a recipe for success. This scenario is more “the Browns curb-stomp the Bengals” and not just “the Browns win,” which means 5-1 Cleveland onslaughts. Of course, the field will be doing a fair bit of that I expect, sooo….
What if the inverse is true? The Browns got wrecked in Week 1. Their talent-packed defense just couldn’t stop anything, and while the Bengals are a far cry from the Ravens, what if this defense….just isn’t as good as it’s projected to be? They weren’t great last year, after all, and Mayfield can be a turnover machine on his bad days. This is a much less likely outcome, but Bengals onslaught lineups are likely to be VERY low owned.
Finally, the Browns could show up to play, but so could Joe Burrow. Cincinnati’s offense is loaded with good weapons, and if their offensive line can hold up, Burrow has the arm to find them. Burrow is really the key to this game hitting the over; if he can have a good game with a healthy AJ Green, maybe finding John Ross for some deep completions, maybe Mixon really gets it going as he did against Cleveland in Week 14 last year, we could be in for a high-scoring back-and-forth affair.
There isn’t one captain that really stands out to me in this one; nobody I’d want 30% or 50% exposure to, at least. My favorites right now are Chubb, Beckham, Mixon, and Green in that order, and I’ll also want some Landry, Boyd, and Ross as well.
Some groups to consider:
At most 1 kicker and at most 1 defense, as always
Pair captain receivers with their QBs (or consider boosting the QB if using a captain receiver if you don’t want 100% exposure to this pairing; discussedin further detail in the 2020 update to my Advanced Showdowns course)
Pair captain Mayfield with at least 2 receivers and captain Burrow with at least 1 receiver
At most, one of all of the various rotational receiving pieces (Tate, Higgins, Erickson, the other Higgins, Hodge, Peoples-Jones, Sample, Bryant, and Carlson). Or, if you want to get wackier, at most one of those groups for each team (i.e. at most 1 Bengals rotational receiver and at most 1 Browns rotational receiver)
If captain Chubb, negative boost Hunt, and vice versa (or, if going for a lower variance approach, just exclude the other RB, but there are scenarios in which both can hit)
If captain Chubb, no Bengals D (or negative boost if you want a higher variance approach)
If captain Mixon, no Browns D (or negative boost if you want a higher variance approach)