2021 Franchise Focus: Cincinnati Bengals


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2021 Franchise Focus: Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals’ 2021 season could be a lot of fun, but there are a few big ifs attached to that.

They have a talented young signal-caller, if Joe Burrow can return at close to top shape from a devastating knee injury.

Their receiving corps, with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and #5 overall pick Ja’Marr Chase is loaded and should produce big-time numbers … if Joe Burrow is healthy.

RB Joe Mixon should be primed for a true bell-cow role following the departure of Giovani Bernardif Mixon can stay on the field and if a still-problematic offensive line can open holes for him.

If all those ifs play out, we still don’t know if Zac Taylor is a capable head coach who has the ability to make this offense hum. But there is a lot of talent here and a lot to like from a fantasy standpoint.

Cincinnati Bengals Franchise Focus Companion Podcast

The Basics

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)6.5 (+118/-143)
AFC North+2000
Playoffs (Y/N)+475/-700
AFC Championship+5000
Super Bowl+10000

Season Prop Movement

  • Win Total: 6.5 (-110) in late March to 6.5 (+118)

  • Super Bowl: +6600 in early February to +10000

Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.

Key Offseason Moves

Riley Reiff (OT)Ja’Marr Chase (WR)William Jackson (CB, Was)
Mike Hilton (CB)Jackson Carman (OT)A.J. Green (WR, Ari)
Trey Hendrickson (DE)Joseph Ossai (DE)John Ross (WR, NYG)
Larry Ogunjobi (DL)Cameron Sample (DE)Bobby Hart (OT, Buf)
Eli Apple (CB)Tyler Shelvin (DT)B.J. Finney (C, Pit)
Chidobe Awuzie (CB)D’Ante Smith (OT)Carl Lawson (DE, NYJ)
Ricardo Allen (S)Evan McPherson (K)Geno Atkins (DL)
Thaddeus Moss (TE)Trey Hill (OC)Mackensie Alexander (CB, Min)
Pooka Williams Jr. (RB)Chris Evans (RB)Cethan Carter (TE, Mia)
Giovani Bernard (RB, TB)
Shawn Williams (S, Ari)
Josh Bynes (LB)
Margus Hunt (DT)
LeShaun Sims (CB)

Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule

Quarterback: 16th-toughest (-0.06)

Running Back: 13th-easiest (+0.34)

Wide Receivers: 5th-toughest (-0.94)

Tight Ends: 11th-toughest (-0.14)

Pace and Tendencies

Pace (seconds in between plays): 26.4 (8th)

Plays per game: 76.9 (1st)

When the game is within a score — Pass: 62% (T-2nd) | Run: 38% (T-31st)

When the team is ahead — Pass: 59% (3rd) | Run: 41% (30th)

When the team is behind — Pass: 67% (11th) | Run: 33% (22nd)

(All of these tendencies are when Joe Burrow was healthy in Week 1-10.)

In Burrow’s nine starts, the Bengals were a goldmine for fantasy. They played fast (8th in pace), ran a ton of plays (1st), and were top-12 in pass rate in all three key game situations. That combination put Burrow on pace for a league-leading 658 attempts before he tore up his knee. Now, you could argue that HC Zac Taylor put too much on Burrow’s plate too early behind a shoddy offensive line but the flip side is that they had to throw. In Burrow’s 10 starts, the game was within a score quarter or they were behind going into the fourth quarter 8 times. The Bengals were a mediocre team and the only way they could compete is by throwing a ton. Will that change in 2021? Maybe they will go a little bit more run-heavy now that Joe Mixon is healthy again and Burrow is coming off of a major injury. But the fact still remains that their defense is still a work in progress and all of their key tendencies from 2020 point to a repeat of their fast-paced, pass-first attack.

Key Statistics

  • Before getting injured, Joe Burrow was on pace for 4,301 yards. That would have been the third-most by a rookie QB all-time behind Andrew Luck (4,374) and Justin Herbert (4,336).

  • Burrow had five games of 300+ passing yards, which is tied for third-most all-time also behind Herbert (8) and Luck (6).

  • Burrow’s 17.4 FPG ranks eighth-best all-time among rookie QBs.

  • Burrow was pressured on 32% of his dropbacks, which was 18th-most out of 35 QBs and his passer rating was 52.3 (26th) per PFF.

  • Tee Higgins averaged 69.9 yards per game with Burrow and 46.5 without him.

  • Tyler Boyd put up 16.2 fantasy points per game in Burrow’s starts, which would have made him the WR14 over the full season.

  • Boyd scored just 6.1 FPG without Burrow (WR116).

  • Boyd averaged 8.7 targets per game with Burrow and just 4.6 without him.

  • Before he got hurt, Joe Mixon got 20, 20, 19, 31, 32, and 21 opportunities (attempts + targets) in his six starts.

  • Mixon was the RB11 in fantasy points per game (16.9), but ranked third in expected fantasy points per game (19.2) which was tied with Alvin Kamara. Christian McCaffrey (22.6) was first in XFP followed by Dalvin Cook (20.8).

  • Mixon started getting way more work on passing downs, too. He ran 114 routes while Gio Bernard ran 71 in Week 1-5.

Huber’s Scheme Notes


All it took was a comment from HC Zac Taylor that targets would not be forced to any single receiver, now we see previous opinions on where to draft their trio of talented WRs as “threatened.” Those opinions should’ve already been on notice. Not because Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins were being overdrafted. Granted, the ADP of Tyler Boyd presented a clear value. If Boyd’s average slotting rises just a tad, all three would fall into their appropriate places. We want to think, since Cincinnati spent a top-five pick on a WR, that Chase would instantly catapult into being some type of bellcow receiver. But that is simply not how the very top level of football is played. Forcing the ball to any one particular location only serves to telegraph to the defense where it can hang out to take the ball away.

All of that said, there is a distinct reason the Bengals invested that capital in Chase. Three individuals in the draft stood head-and-shoulders above the rest based on pure athleticism: Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, and Chase. Then you factor in his experience playing with Joe Burrow and the fact that Chase put up some incredible numbers against elite competition. Higgins and Boyd may not have Chase’s ludicrous athleticism, but their success is simply vital to that of Burrow and Chase. Expecting three WRs to play a substantial role in the same NFL offense would have been considered unlikely 10-15 years ago prior to the current league-wide trend toward incorporating Air Raid components. But that’s where Taylor and OC Brian Callahan come into play.

During their two seasons coaching the Bengals, Taylor and Callahan offenses have finished within the top-five in both three-wide, and four-wide receiver sets. And Cincinnati and Burrow were actually desperate for a third WR to emerge as a standout performer last season. Plugging a player of Chase’s caliber into the spot vacated by A.J. Green even made upgrading Burrow’s protection a secondary priority. Allowing Burrow to get the ball out faster, forcing defenses to think twice about loading the box, Bengals’ coaches are no doubt hoping will indirectly serve as protecting their cornerstone QB. The most significant question that needs to be answered is whether their run game shying away from gap blocking (28th-lowest rate last season) is by design or due to deficiencies along their O-line.


The two defensive moves of the offseason that simply did not add up were the Bears allowing Kyle Fuller to walk, and the Bengals doing the same with William Jackson III. We are unable to speak to the relationship between Jackson and DC Lou Anarumo. So, we can only look to the analytics. And those analytics detail one of the most consistent CBs in the entire NFL last season. The one thing the Cincinnati defense did well last season was in coverage. On the flip side, it easily fielded one of the worst run defenses and pass rushes across the entire league. The fact that Mackensie Alexander was also not retained in Anarumo’s defense is not a great sign for the defense finding success this season.

The Bengals will hope to replace Alexander with Mike Hilton. It’s not a bad tradeoff — I actually see Hilton as a slight upgrade over Alexander. But then they will attempt to sell Trae Waynes and Chidobe Awuzie as their starting CBs on the outside. Let’s keep in mind that this defense is not bending over backwards to confuse opposing offenses. They ranked with the eighth-highest rate of both Cover 1 and Cover 4 last season. The Cover 1 rate is not an issue as long as the remainder of its scheme rates protect those CBs. It doesn’t. Every one of the other defenses with a top-10 rate of Cover 4 (Rams, Washington, Bills, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Saints, 49ers, and Browns) is stacked on defense. And you need a stacked defense in order to get away with fielding the most vulnerable defensive coverage scheme (Cover 4) in the game. As it stands, the Cincinnati defense should be a weekly target for your offensive studs.

Projected Fantasy Contributors

Joe Burrow (Proj: QB13 | ADP: 92 | Pos ADP: QB12)

Prior to absolutely shredding his knee on an awful-looking play in a Week 11 loss to Washington, Burrow was on pace for a very, very good rookie season, if not an all-timer. In his nine full games played, Burrow averaged 18.9 FPG, which would have ranked him at QB12 among passers who made eight or more starts during the regular season. Burrow’s ceiling was overall pretty low, though, as he finished as a top-5 QB in just one of his 10 starts, and a top-12 QB in just two more. Mostly, he was a rock-solid option who wasn’t going to lose you a week. That said, it was a lack of TD production — just 13 TD passes and 3 rushing TDs in 10 games — that held Burrow back because he was very good in other categories. Before getting injured, Burrow was on pace for 4,301 yards. That would have been the third-most by a rookie QB all-time behind Andrew Luck (4,374) and Justin Herbert (4,336). Burrow had five games of 300+ passing yards, which is tied for third-most all-time also behind Herbert (8) and Luck (6). And the Bengals trusted him — in Weeks 1-11, the Bengals went 60% pass-heavy on early downs (first and second) when the game was within a score. That tied the Chiefs for the highest rate in this span. And he also was held back by throwing to one of the worst receivers in football in 2020 in AJ Green. Green is gone, moved on to Arizona, and in steps Burrow’s college teammate — WR Ja’Marr Chase, the 5th overall pick in the NFL Draft. That’s an instant upgrade to a receiving corps that also features impressive 2020 rookie Tee Higgins and slot master Tyler Boyd. Still, the biggest question for the Bengals is the offensive line, which has mostly seen patchwork improvements this off-season. In 2020, Burrow was pressured on 32% of his dropbacks, which was 18th-most out of 35 QBs per PFF. When he was under pressure, Burrow’s passer rating was 52.3 (26th). When the pocket was clean, Burrow’s passer rating was 102.5. And obviously, the elephant among all that is that Burrow went down with a devastating knee injury — keeping him upright should be a priority, and it’s fair to question if the Bengals improved enough to do so. That said, Burrow’s been practicing in OTAs, a great sign for his early-season availability, and his initial lack of mobility from his injury had an unexpected positive side effect — all reports indicate Burrow increased his arm strength during the down period, which was evident on OTA films. The injury is a concern, as is the offensive line, but Burrow’s ADP of QB13 given the supporting cast and his promising rookie campaign is very fair.

Brandon Allen (Proj: QB46 | ADP: 294 | Pos ADP: QB42)

Allen started five games in 2020 for the injured Joe Burrow. Behind an abysmal offensive line, Allen struggled to produce in any tangible way, finishing outside of the weekly top-24 QBs in four of his five starts while averaging just 185 passing yards per game. He was below average in every conceivable metric, with only six QBs finishing behind Allen in air yards per pass attempt (6.7, per SIS). Small but with a decent enough arm, Allen has done enough in meeting rooms the last two years to secure backup jobs in Denver and Cincinnati, where he’s had to make multiple starts. He’s being drafted in deep, deep leagues because of Burrow’s injury last year, but the Bengals would most likely be in trouble — deep trouble — if Allen has to play again.

Joe Mixon (Proj: RB14 | ADP: 19 | Pos ADP: RB14)

2020 was a miserable campaign for Mixon, there’s no way around it. Playing in just six games before a lingering foot injury shut him down (though he was always speculated to be very close to coming off IR), Mixon averaged just 3.6 YPC on 119 rush attempts (his career low is 3.5), and 6.6 YPR on 21 receptions (a new career low). He was frequently contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage behind a terrible Cincy offensive line, on a whopping 41.2% of his carries (9th most among RBs with 100 or more totes, per SIS). Mixon saw 20.2% of his runs result in zero or negative yardage, 6th-most among RBs with 100 or more carries. And yet, despite this, despite fantasy players being frustrated with his injury status, Mixon managed to produce when active. Mixon got 20, 20, 19, 31, 32, and 21 opportunities (attempts + targets) in his six starts. Mixon was the RB11 in fantasy points per game (16.9), but ranked third in expected fantasy points per game (19.2) tied with Alvin Kamara. Christian McCaffrey (22.6) was first in XFP followed by Dalvin Cook (20.8). Mixon started getting way more work on passing downs, too. He ran 114 routes while Giovani Bernard ran 71, in Weeks 1-5. And now Bernard is gone, leaving just Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams, and sixth-round rookie Chris Evans behind Mixon. The Bengals’ coaches have acknowledged this off-season that Mixon is likely headed to a significant role, though OC Brian Callahan did say he’d like his back to improve in pass pro (a big deal given what happened to Joe Burrow last year). The lack of a proven receiving option behind Mixon is important, as well, given how outsized targets produce fantasy value vis-a-vis a carry in PPR leagues. Given Mixon’s injury history and the offensive line woes, his ADP of RB14 is about right, but knowing how much he produced when healthy last year makes him a very appealing second-round draft pick.

Ja’Marr Chase (Proj: WR24 | ADP: 59 | Pos ADP: WR25)

The Bengals passed on what many would have considered a bigger need — offensive line — to draft Chase at #5 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. But if you’re just evaluating the skills of the prospect and not team need, there’s a chance Cincinnati got the best overall prospect in the class. Moreover, Chase is reuniting with his college QB Joe Burrow, with whom Chase posted a ridiculous 84/1780/20 (21.2 YPR) season in LSU’s 2019 National Title campaign. Chase opted out of the 2020 season, leaving behind absolutely pristine tape. A true alpha “X” with no discernible weaknesses in his game, Chase reminded our Greg Cosell of a bigger Steve Smith and DeAndre Hopkins. Outside of Chase’s competitiveness, route quickness, strength, and hands, his overall playing personality suggests he could be one of the NFL’s best receivers in short order. Moreover, one of the least efficient players in all of football in 2020, AJ Green, is leaving behind 104 targets. Green averaged just 7.0 FPG on those 104 targets, despite an expected average of 12.1 FPG per Scott Barrett’s XFP metric. That was by far the worst negative difference in the NFL among players with 10 or more games played (Zach Ertz was next, not even in the same ballpark at -3.7). If Chase gets Green’s target share and performs like a league-average player, he would have finished at WR40 last year, right behind teammate Tee Higgins. But here’s the thing — Chase isn’t a league-average talent. Presuming his performance is higher-level, he should command more attention from Burrow. So while it seems perhaps a little aggressive that the markets value Chase so highly — he’s a 5th/6th-round pick and often the first Bengal receiver to be drafted — he should be a solid value if he merely takes the looks Green leaves behind. We’re projecting him to command much more than that.

Tee Higgins (Proj: WR26 | ADP: 58 | Pos ADP: WR24)

Higgins, a 2020 second-round pick, is coming off a spectacular rookie season in which he posted 67/908/6 receiving on 108 targets, outproducing Bengals legend AJ Green by nearly double for fantasy (195.6 to 111.2) despite seeing just four more targets over the course of 16 games. Higgins was overall a great value pick for fantasy, finishing three times as a top-12 PPR weekly WR, twice more as a top-24 WR, and three times more as a top-36 WR. Much like Green in his prime, Higgins used his elite body control to win at the point of attack and his long strides to create a vertical element to his game, while showing more route-running nuance than you might think. And had Joe Burrow stayed healthy for the whole 2020 campaign, Higgins would have easily topped 1000 yards receiving as a rookie — Higgins averaged 69.9 yards per game with Burrow and 46.5 without him, which extrapolates to 1118 yards with Burrow over a full campaign and 744 without him. The good news for Higgins is that Burrow looks like he’s going to be ready for Week 1, and Green has moved on to Arizona. The bad news is that any increase in usage Higgins might have seen with Green hitching a ride could be offset by the selection of Ja’Marr Chase with the #5 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. While Higgins was spectacular as a rookie, Chase is one of the cleanest prospects we’ve seen in years, a true alpha-dog X with superstar traits. To Higgins’ advantage is his extensive experience moving around the formation and into the slot, which he did at times at Clemson and as a rookie. If Chase weren’t here, Higgins’ ADP would have exploded, perhaps even into the third round, but instead Higgins and Chase typically go within a round of each other in the 5th and 6th-round ranges in drafts. Because Higgins doesn’t have a long track record and there’s only one ball to go around here, fantasy drafters have had a tough time separating him, Chase, and slot god Tyler Boyd. The most likely outcome here is that all three are capable of producing and paying off their modest ADPs, and the best-case scenario is that Burrow is healthy and this Bengal trio begins to challenge for the title of best WR group in the entire league. Higgins is an appealing WR3.

Tyler Boyd (Proj: WR37 | ADP: 83 | Pos ADP: WR36)

Like many Bengals, it was a tale of two seasons for Boyd last year, who was returning excellent value on a moderate ADP while Joe Burrow was QB. In Burrow’s 11 starts, Boyd put up 16.2 fantasy points per game, which would have made him the WR14 over the full season. Boyd scored just 6.1 FPG without Burrow (WR116). Boyd averaged 8.7 targets per game with Burrow and just 4.6 without him. So obviously, Burrow being healthy is critical for Boyd to make a significant impact in 2021 — we don’t want to see Brandon Allen out there. That being said, he has one of the most stable roles in football as a true slot master. He had 97 targets from the slot in 2020 per SIS, which ranked 4th in the NFL. He had 108 such targets in 2019 (also 3rd in the NFL), and was tied for 11th in 2018 with 87 slot targets, same as Michael Thomas. That role, even with rookie stud Ja’Marr Chase in the fold, isn’t going to change, even if he loses some volume. Boyd had one game as a top-5 WR in 2020, two more as a top-12 option, and three more as a top-24 option. All six of those games came in Burrow starts. The only time he ranked even as a top-36 WR (and right at WR36) without Burrow came in Week 13 against Miami … when he turned his only catch into a 72-yard touchdown. So it’s pretty simple. Boyd was an excellent fantasy option with a high floor with Burrow, and a zero without him. His current price indicates the markets are quite scared of the presence of Chase and second-year stud Tee Higgins, but Boyd is also one of the best in the world in the slot, and given the Bengals’ lack of a receiving threat at tight end, the predominant “11” personnel looks we’re expecting to see should keep him productive enough to pay off his modest 7th/8th-round ADP.

Auden Tate (Proj: WR116 | ADP: 334 | Pos ADP: WR118)

A big, almost WR-TE tweener type, Tate barely played in 2020 after a promising 2019 campaign that saw him catch 40 passes at 14.4 yards a clip. Dealing with COVID-19 and a shoulder injury, Tate posted just 14/150/0 in nine games in 2020. However, the coaching staff apparently still likes him, with several beat writers noting that he had good chemistry with Joe Burrow last training camp. While Tate is, at best, #4 on this WR depth chart, keep in mind that the Bengals don’t have a true receiving threat at TE, and his body type could push him into that role, especially near the goal line. It’s possible a healthier Tate would have played more for a dusted AJ Green in 2020, but it was a missed opportunity for the youngster. He should be left on waiver wires and monitored.

CJ Uzomah (Proj: TE31 | ADP: 426 | Pos ADP: TE62)

Uzomah played in two games in 2020 — including against the Browns in Week 2 in which he posted a 4/42/1 line and a top-12 TE finish on the week … before he left with an Achilles tear and missed the rest of the campaign. A better receiver than Drew Sample, Uzomah has some modicum of upside, but the problem is Sample will likely play a lot because he’s a good blocker, and Uzomah is coming off a nasty injury. We’re not ruling out some waiver viability at some point, but the TEs are an afterthought in this Cincinnati passing game.

Drew Sample (Proj: TE58 | ADP: 423 | Pos ADP: TE61)

Sample probably had an underrated season. He had to play a lot with CJ Uzomah missing most of the year with an Achilles tear, and he hauled in 40 of his 53 targets (75.5%) for 349 yards and a TD while playing 16 games. However, receiving — and fantasy — are not his strong suit. Sample didn’t have a single top-12 fantasy week, and only seven of his 16 games ranked in the top 24 at TE. His value to the Bengals is as a blocker to assist their weak offensive line. Per PFF, Sample was the NFL’s fifth-best run blocker at TE, and the 14th-best pass protector. On this team, that’ll get him on the field. Just don’t expect a lot of production to come from it.

Hansen’s Final Points

With a new star receiver in tow in Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow could wind up being one of the best QB picks on the board this year. Burrow’s recovery has gone extremely well from all reports, but the best news of all is Burrow is a relatively affordable option as the QB13 off the board around 95-100 picks into a draft. It’s hard to say we’re aggressively targeting him, but he’s on our short list of choice options this year, assuming all is well with his recovery in August. The Bengals may have done enough on their OL to at least not be awful, and this is a team that will run a lot of plays and will remain a pass-happy team. With good health and some positive TD regression, Burrow will be a sneaky pick to finish as this year’s closest version of 2020’s Josh Allen. If I drafted Burrow as my QB1, I’d look to secure a high-end QB2 like Baker Mayfield or Carson Wentz, just in case.

If Joe Mixon is ever going to have a dream career year, this may be it, assuming he’s in good shape healthwise this summer. Coming out of the off-season workouts, his foot issue was considered fine and he worked in the OTAs and is expected to be ready to open training camp. Extremely talented, Mixon has a huge role waiting for him in both the running and passing games, and the Bengal OL should improve to the point at which they may not suck. If the line is just mediocre, we’d take that for Mixon. There are a lot of “ifs” with Mixon, mainly relating to his health and Joe Burrow’s health, but based on his massive upside on the chance the planets align for him, he’s worth taking in the second round as the RB14 off the board. There will be a battle for the backup job, so Mixon’s handcuff is still unclear and may be all year, which could be a minor headache for Mixon owners to deal with.

He’s definitely pricey for a rookie, but Ja’Marr Chase has no weaknesses to his game and is no ordinary rookie. Since he has immediate chemistry with Joe Burrow, we’re signing off on him at his relatively expensive cost in the 55-60 overall range as roughly the WR25 off the board. We will adjust if the vibes are shaky this summer in terms of Burrow’s knee or the OL. As mentioned in his writeup above, if Chase gets AJ Green’s 2020 target share and performs like he’s capable of, he’s a lock to finish as a top-30 WR, and he has the upside to land inside the top-20.

He was a second-round pick, but Tee Higgins was shockingly good as a rookie in 2020, and he’s getting an appropriate amount of love from the masses, with an ADP around 55-60 and at WR24. He basically costs the exact same price as Chase, which is fair. Ultimately, while he really surprised us last year and has apparently gotten even better this year, we’d have to give the stud Chase the nod if given the chance. Based on what he showed last season as a rookie, Higgins is more than capable of delivering the goods as a 5th or 6th round pick. But is he capable of doing that with the stud Chase now in the mix? That’s the big question.

When he was playing with Joe Burrow, Tyler Boyd was more than fine last year with 16.2 fantasy points per game. That would have made him the WR14 on the season, so while it’s fair to be discouraged by the addition of stallion Chase, Boyd is also the cheapest of the top-3 WRs here, and he’s about two rounds cheaper than both Chase and Higgins, which is considerable. Since Boyd is locked into his slot role, his role is fairly secure, so it looks like fantasy owners are forgetting how good Boyd was with Burrow. So good, that he’s a good bet to deliver the best ROI between the top three guys.

He was looking good very early in the season and clicking well with Joe Burrow, but C.J. Uzomah suffered a nasty Achilles injury in Week 2 (he had a big game that week despite getting knocked out), so he’s not exactly on the radar heading into 2021. He’s a better option than Drew Sample, at least, and Uzomah can also block, so he has a chance to seriously outproduce his low ADP of 200+ this year. That said, Uzomah is in the final year of his contract, and there is a chance he doesn’t make the team this summer, so he’s not exactly a good fantasy pick.

He will likely play a lot because he’s a good blocker, but Drew Sample should be behind a healthy C.J Uzomah, so there’s not much going on with Sample for now. Uzomah is coming off a nasty injury, but Sample is a WW guy only this year.