2023 Franchise Focus: Cincinnati Bengals


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2023 Franchise Focus: Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are coming off their best offensive season in the Zac Taylor/Joe Burrow era, finishing 8th in yards per game and 7th in points per game. So the Bengals didn’t need to do a whole lot at the skill positions to improve this off-season.

Instead, the biggest acquisition the Bengals made on offense this year is tackle Orlando Brown, whom Cincinnati signed to the biggest free-agent deal in the team’s entire season. They’re making it a point to try to solidify the still-inadequate protection in front of Burrow, and if the Bengals are going to improve anywhere, that’s the most likely spot.

With Burrow coming due for a mega contract, that’s smart on their part.

Listen to the accompanying Franchise Focus podcast with Locked on Bengals’ Jake Liscow

The Betting Basics

Odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)11.5 (+110/-134)
AFC North+125
Playoffs (Y/N)-340/+260
AFC Championship+500
Super Bowl+1000

Season Prop Movement

Win Total: 11.5 (-105) in late March to 11.5 (+110)

Super Bowl: +900 in mid-February to +1000

Projected Fantasy Contributors

All ADP is from Underdog Fantasy as of publication date.

Joe Burrow (Proj: QB4 | ADP: 46 | Pos ADP: QB5)

Burrow cemented his spot among the NFL’s best quarterbacks by leading the Bengals to back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins, AFC North titles, and AFC Championship Game appearances. He attempted an additional 5.4 passes per game last season because of an improved O-line and a declining rushing attack. The additional passing volume helped him offset declines in his league-best marks in YPA (8.9>7.4) and completion percentage (70.4%>68.3) from 2021. He finished behind only Tom Brady in average time to throw at 2.36 seconds (per Fantasy Points Data), which led his aDOT to shrink from 2021 (8.4>7.4) while also absorbing 10 fewer sacks (51>41). Burrow completed 414/606 passes (68.3%) for 4475 yards (7.4 YPA), 35 TDs (5.8%), and 12 INTs (2.0%). He added 75/257/5 rushing to finish as the QB4 with 22.9 FPG in 16 games. He had six weekly finishes as a top-five fantasy QB and 11 weekly finishes as a top-12 option. Burrow’s success is partially tied to stud Ja’Marr Chase, and he averaged more than four extra passes per game (38.9) in the 12 games when Chase was in the lineup. Chase and Tee Higgins elevate his fantasy ceiling, but Burrow added his own rushing upside with 27 scrambles (9th most) and 7 carries from inside the 5-yard line (t-4th most at QB). Burrow will carry the offense again unless Joe Mixon and the backfield take a significant step forward after a rough 2022, which has Burrow locked into the second-tier of fantasy QBs this summer.

Joe Mixon (Proj: RB19 | ADP: 52 | Pos ADP: RB16)

Mixon is hanging on by a thread in Cincinnati because of his declining play, his large contract, and multiple run-ins with the law. He made it through the draft relatively unscathed, with the Bengals waiting until the fifth round to address their major need at running back when they selected Chase Brown. The Bengals could save more than $7.3 million in 2023 by releasing Mixon, and he may have to take a pay cut to stick around with Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins currently searching for long-term contracts. Mixon received plenty of touches, which propelled him to eight weekly finishes as a top-24 fantasy RB, but he had just one weekly finish as a top-five RB and five weekly finishes as a top-12 option. He posted 210/814/7 rushing (3.9 YPC) and 60/441/2 receiving (7.4YPR) on 75 targets (12.9% share) to finish as the RB8 with 15.0 FPG. He owned a 65% snap share and a 62.3% carry share and ran 225 routes (16.1 per game) in 14 contests — he missed two games because of a concussion. The Bengals appear ready to head into training camp with the seventh-year runner leading a backfield with little experience behind him. That could be a big mistake for a team with Super Bowl aspirations since Mixon was one of the NFL’s worst backs last season. Among 33 RBs with 150+ carries, Mixon finished dead last with just 18 missed tackles forced on 210 carries (.09 per attempt) and 29th in yards after contact per attempt at 2.6 per Fantasy Points Data. He also finished 28th in explosive run rate (percentage of runs to go for 15+ yards) at only 2.9%. Mixon has logged 270+ touches in four of his last five seasons, but he’ll have to play better if he wants to hold off a thin depth chart behind him.

Chase Brown (Proj: RB49 | ADP: 186 | Pos ADP: RB58)

Cincinnati has a huge void to fill after three-down backup Samaje Perine bolted for Denver in free agency, and Brown has the chance to grab Perine’s valuable handcuff role. Perine ranked as the RB2 behind only Josh Jacobs in Weeks 11-13, averaging 23.7 FPG and turning in 82+ scrimmage yards and 19+ FP in each game. Brown started his career at Western Michigan in 2018 before transferring to Illinois and eventually becoming their go-to back in his final two seasons. He posted 498/2648/15 rushing (5.3 YPC) and 41/382/3 receiving (9.3 YPR) in 2021-22 for per-game averages of 137.7 scrimmage yards, 1.9 receptions, and .82 touchdowns. Brown finished with the RB class’ third-best SPORQ score thanks to a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, a 40” vertical, and a 10’7” broad jump at 5’10”, 209 pounds. Brown has the chance to be a home-run-hitting chance-of-pace runner behind Mixon, and he’s got a touch of upside if he can be his handcuff. Mixon also played poorly enough at the end of last season to find himself in a timeshare with Perine in the postseason, which gives Brown an outside chance of grabbing an even bigger role if Mixon’s play continues to decline.

Trayveon Williams (Proj: RB103 | ADP: N/A | Pos ADP: RB74)

The Bengals handed Williams a one-year contract after he accumulated only 55 touches on 138 offensive snaps in his first four seasons. He previously broke Texas A&M single-season records for rushing yards (1760) and scrimmage yards (2038) in his final season with the Aggies. Williams, a 2019 6th-round pick, would typically be an easy player to write off since he’s made absolutely zero impact on his rookie contract. Still, it wouldn’t be a total upset if he has fantasy-relevant moments this season. The Bengals’ backfield is in flux with Samaje Perine leaving for Denver and Joe Mixon’s play deteriorating after logging 270+ touches in four of his last five seasons. Williams will compete with fifth-round pick Chase Brown to be the top backup runner with Chris Evans potentially factoring in during passing situations. Williams is still a long shot to be fantasy relevant but this backfield bears watching this August.

Ja’Marr Chase (Proj: WR2 | ADP: 2 | Pos ADP: WR2)

Justin Jefferson is the consensus top overall pick in fantasy drafts this summer and his LSU teammate, Chase, is right behind him as the consensus second selection. Chase missed four games for a hairline hip fracture in Weeks 8-12, but he came back better than ever with 60+ receiving yards, 5+ receptions, and 13.5+ FP in his final eight games (postseason included). Chase posted 87/1046/9 receiving (12.0 YPR) on 134 targets (27.1% share) to finish as the WR4 with 16.7 FPG. He played on 94% of the snaps and ran 496 routes (41.3 per game) in 12 contests. Chase had four weekly finishes as a top-five fantasy WR, five finishes as a top-12 option, and 10 finishes as a top-36 WR. He saw his YPR plummet from 18.0 to 12.0 yards in his second season, but he actually finished with six more receptions (81<87) despite playing five fewer games. Chase’s aDOT also plummeted from 13.4 yards in 2021 to 9.8 yards in 2022 (per Fantasy Points Data) with the Bengals transitioning to a quicker passing attack to better protect Joe Burrow. The Bengals averaged more than four extra passes per game when Chase was in the lineup, averaging 38.9 attempts per game in his 12 contests, and he led the league by running routes on 94.7% of Cincy’s dropbacks. He’s finished in the top six at the position in receiving touchdowns and end-zone targets in each of his first two seasons. It’s a matter of when, not if, Chase will finish as the WR1, and it could happen as early as 2023.

Tee Higgins (Proj: WR13 | ADP: 22 | Pos ADP: WR14)

Higgins, like his 2020 classmate Joe Burrow, is searching for a long-term deal to stay with the Bengals. He’s searching for close to $100 million as he heads into the final season of his rookie contract, but Higgins will likely have to wait for Burrow’s deal to get done before Cincinnati moves onto his extension talks. Higgins has been consistent to start his career, recording between 108-110 targets and 6+ TD receptions in each of his first three seasons. He posted 74/1029 receiving (13.9 YPR) on 109 targets (16.7% share) to finish as the WR19 with 11.5 FPG. He played on 68% of the snaps and ran 502 routes (31.4 per game) in 16 contests. He didn’t technically miss a game but ankle, hamstring, and head injuries forced him to leave three games early after playing 26% of the snaps or less. He saw just two total targets in those three contents, which means he would’ve finished as the WR10 with 13.9 FPG if those games were thrown out of his per-game averages. Higgins had four weekly finishes as a top-five fantasy WR and 11 finishes as a top-36 WR, and he balled out with 26/371/2 receiving on 36 targets for 18.8 FPG in four games missed by Ja’Marr Chase. Among 81 WRs with 50+ targets, Higgins finished tied for fifth in yards per target over expectation (1.8), which made up for his disappointing 7 end-zone targets (per Fantasy Points Data). Higgins’ upside is capped a bit playing next to Chase but Burrow could easily support a pair of top-12 WRs this season.

Tyler Boyd (Proj: WR51 | ADP: 1066 | Pos ADP: WR51)

Boyd is entering the final season of the four-year, $43 million contract he signed with the Bengals in 2019. It could be his last with the franchise unless he agrees to a team-friendly deal next off-season with Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase looking for mega deals in the near future. His role in the passing game continued to regress, posting 58/762/5 receiving (13.1 YPR) on 82 targets (13.0% share) to finish as the WR40 with 8.6 FPG. He played on 72% of the snaps and ran 523 routes (32.7 per game) in 16 contests. Boyd had one weekly finish as a top-five fantasy WR, two weekly finishes as a top-12 option, and a disappointing seven finishes as a top-36 WR. Boyd’s targets (148>110>94>82), receptions (90>79>67>58), and receiving yards (1046>841>828>762) have fallen in each of the last four seasons with his decline starting when the Bengals selected Higgins in 2020. He also failed to step up when Chase missed four games in the middle of last season, recording 12/140/1 receiving on 20 targets for 6.5 FPG in Weeks 8-12. Boyd is fantasy bench material to open the season but he can’t be written off with his attachment to Joe Burrow in this pass-happy offense.

Trenton Irwin (Proj: WR128 | ADP: N/A | Pos ADP: WR134)

Irwin first made a name for himself as a child actor, but his second career as an NFL receiver finally got legs for the first time in 2022 in his fourth NFL season. He posted 15/231/4 receiving (15.4 YPR) on 23 targets (6.5% share) while playing on 47% of the snaps in nine games. Irwin finished as a top-10 fantasy WR once when he scored two touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 16. He has the slight advantage to open the season as the #4 WR behind Cincy’s big three receivers. The Bengals selected Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas on Day 3 of the draft and each should push Irwin for his spot in the rotation.

Irv Smith (Proj: TE20 | ADP: 151 | Pos ADP: TE17)

The Bengals are piecing together at tight end for the second straight year, luring Smith to play with Joe Burrow on a prove-it deal. Hayden Hurst landed $13 million guaranteed from the Panthers after one season playing with Burrow, and C.J. Uzomah landed $15 million guaranteed during the 2021 off-season. The Vikings had big expectations for Irv when they drafted him 50th overall out of Alabama in 2019, but his career never took off in Minnesota for several reasons. Smith shared the positional duties with Kyle Rudolph in 2019-20 before a slew of injuries slowed his progress the last two years after the Vikings cleared the deck for him to be the man. He missed the entire 2021 season for a torn meniscus before needing thumb surgery in August 2022, which slowed his progress early last season. Smith turned in 22/168/2 receiving in six games in Weeks 2-8 prior to suffering a high-ankle injury, which prompted Minnesota to cut their losses and trade for his 2019 TD classmate, T.J. Hockenson, two days after his injury. Smith posted 25/182/2 receiving (7.3 YPR) on 36 targets (11.4% share) to finish as the TE24 with 5.3 FPG in 2022. He played on 53% of the snaps and ran 160 routes (20.0 per game) in eight contests. Irv will turn just 25 years old in August and theoretically has some untapped potential if he can avoid the injury bug for an extended amount of time. Hurst finished with 4+ receptions in 11-of-16 games overall (postseason included) but averaged just 8.0 YPR and 1.12 yards per route run. Smith has the chance to be a high-end streaming option like Hurst and Uzomah in the last two seasons, and he has the potential to be more than that if he can stay healthy for the first time since 2020.

Hansen’s Final Bengals Points

We were ahead of the markets on Joe Burrow last year at QB4 (QB7 ADP), and we are slightly once again this year at QB4 (QB5 ADP). I was very high on him last year, and it was actually a slow start for Burrow, and his YPA dropped from 8.9 to a pedestrian 7.4. Last year was certainly not his career year, yet the guy had 40 TDs total. Things are looking up with their OL and their depth at receiver looking stronger than ever, and TE Irv Smith could represent a noticeable upgrade over Hayden Hurst. I’m not targeting Burrow as aggressively as I was last year, but that’s because his cost has risen 3-4 rounds. I’d prefer to get a little better value for my QB1, but I do have Burrow penciled in as the first QB I’d be willing to take this year at his ADP, assuming I wasn’t feeling any of the non-QBs on the board.

He has survived free agency and the draft, so it looks like Joe Mixon is set to stick one more year in Cincy, which makes him a fairly interesting option because he’s down the board this year at RB19 and 52 overall. We do have him at RB16 as of late June, but we slot him at 39 overall, so we are ahead of the markets. I do like Chase Brown and think he’ll have a larger role than most expect, yet I still think Mixon is being undervalued a tad. Brown is just a rookie, and they have little else behind him, so Mixon should be good for another 60+ catches if healthy because Samaje Perine had 51 targets and 38 grabs last year, and he’s gone. Mixon should also get the bulk of the goal line work, so even though I have him with fewer than 200 carries, the opportunity for catches and the TD potential (Perine and Mixon combined for 15 TDs last year) should bail this declining player out in terms of his fantasy standing.

I don’t think he’ll ever be a true lead back, but rookie Chase Brown could be a terrific #1B type in a dual backfield. I’m expecting him to carve out a role quickly, since he can give them some needed juice, and we’re ahead of the markets on him as our WR49 at 157 overall (ADP RB54, 183). I can’t call him a must-have, but as long as they don’t bring in a better option, Chase is a solid handcuff to Mixon and has a chance to hold standalone flex value in deeper leagues. I have projected 125 touches, but that number would climb considerably if Mixon were injured.

He’s a good special teams player, and that’s why Trayveon Williams is on the roster because I can’t recall ever seeing a back stick on a team for so long with so few touches (55 touches in four seasons). Of course, fellow Bengals RB Chris Evans is close with 55 touches in two seasons, which is why I like Chase Brown as a pick. Williams is versatile enough to challenge for touches, but I’m not inclined to believe he will, based on his lame four seasons in the NFL.

Two years ago, the Bengals were into Chris Evans, and he showed promise in the passing game with 15 catches on 17 targets and over 10 yards a catch. And then in 2022, Evans got four more opportunities than I did, so I don’t know what the heck is going on. But I do know I don’t care about Evans.

I was really feeling Justin Jefferson as the top wideout last year, and it was an easy call to go all-in on a 23-year old stud who’s already proven a ton. This year, I feel the exact way about Ja’Marr Chase. Jefferson has fewer injury concerns, but Chase is more talented, so it’s about even. We do have JJ playing in 1.5 more games, since it’s impossible for me to project 17 games for Chase, but we also have Chase with more PPG (21.2 vs. 19.8). Chase is rolling with a 13% TD rate, whereas Jefferson is only at 7.7%, which is a big part of the comparison. We do have Jefferson ranked over Chase because of those extra 1.5 games, but it’s close (327 FP vs. 318), and I’m willing to take Chase over JJ and at #1 overall in a draft, especially if I was feeling aggressive. Jefferson is the safe pick, and Chase is the play-to-win selection.

I don’t find myself targeting Tee Higgins, due to his injury problems last year and his expensive cost inside the top-24 — the first two rounds. I typically prefer clear #1 WRs that high up the board, but Higgins is unique in that he’s a baller #2 playing with a stud QB and opposite a stud #1 wideout who dictates coverage and commands a lot of attention. So he’s in an excellent spot, often getting better matchups, as we’ve seen with his production over the last two seasons. We are very slightly ahead of the markets at WR13 and 22 overall, and I’m fine with it, but I may not take him unless he slips to 25 overall, or the third round.

The Bengals have the most dynamic WR duo in the league, and their top-3 wideouts are also considered the best in the league, but Tyler Boyd is merely a solid depth piece at WR for fantasy purposes. He’s capable of big things, and he had some big moments last year, but he too often doesn’t get enough looks, and he’s been less effective when needed to step up to the #2 role. We are at or slightly below the markets on Boyd as our WR51 at 110 overall. It’s mildly concerning how the Bengals drafted his possible replacement in 2024 in Charlie Jones, and they also took Andrei Iosivas, who could play a lot if Chase or Higgins miss time. If the two rookies show well in training camp, that would make Boyd a little less appealing, but he’s unlikely to lose many snaps due to Cincy’s strong continuity and Super Bowl aspirations.

The Bengals last year found a nice deep sleeper in Trenton Irwin, who surprisingly emerged as a viable deep threat and rotational receiver for the Bengals last year. He’s still not on the fantasy radar, though, especially since the Bengals used Day 3 picks on wideouts Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas. Iosivas, in particular, could push Irwin down the depth chart, and he’s off to a good start coming out of the OTAs.

There was a time when I was a big Irv Smith guy, but he’s been impossible to handicap due to his major injury concerns, which has precluded us from getting a complete picture of what kind of player Irv is. He’s shown to be a good red zone threat, and he’s considered a good route-runner with good hands, but he’d still be a little bit of an unknown commodity even if we knew that he could stay on the field. Last year, starting TE Hayden Hurst finished with 4+ receptions in 11-of-16 games overall (postseason included), but he was merely a checkdown guy, and I don’t necessarily see Irv in that role. I’m sure he can do it, though, and he’s a lot more explosive than Hurst, so Smith is more exciting to me than Hurst was last year. We are very slightly below Irv’s ADP, but I’m perfectly willing to warm up to him and push him over his ADP in our rankings and as a good TE2 pick if the vibes are good this summer.