The Cincinnati Bengals ushered in the uncertainty of the 2020 season with renewed excitement. Was football even going to be played? What would COVID do to the schedule? The team selected new franchise quarterback Joe Burrow, and the Bengals were ready to face whatever games they could play with a new outlook.
The Bengals stumbled to a 4-11-1 record and lost Burrow in the tenth game to a torn ACL and MCL. It earned them another early draft pick, and the team appears primed to take a huge step forward in 2021.
Burrow was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft – the golden boy from Ohio who would be the franchise’s savior. He lit college football on fire the previous season, torching the record books en route to leading the LSU Tigers to a national championship. The stars aligned perfectly for the Bengals, something that doesn’t happen much, and they were rewarded with a player perfect for their team and situation.
Despite a 2-7-1 record as a starter, there was a lot to be encouraged by in Burrow’s first season. He eclipsed 300 yards in five of his starts and threw multiple TDs in four of them, including two games of three scoring passes. The two victories were over Jacksonville and Tennessee, one of the best teams in the AFC. The team also scored 27 or more points in five of his starts.
It wasn’t all roses obviously, in three of the games, the offense scored 10 or fewer points. It was against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington – three teams with tough defenses. Burrow only threw five interceptions but had nine fumbles, with four of them being lost to the other team. He was also sacked 32 times. Unfortunately, almost every Bengals quarterback since Boomer Esiason has been the victim of poor line play and sacked more than most of the league.
The Bengals added a high-profile weapon in the draft instead of going with stud lineman Penei Sewell. Will that haunt them for the next ten years? They added Riley Reiff in free agency and drafted Jackson Carman in the second round to add to their offensive line. Neither are inspiring additions but should present an upgrade. Keeping Burrow upright should have been the highest priority.
So, where do we value Burrow in terms of fantasy football? He is being drafted in the middle of the second round in Superflex leagues as the tenth QB off the board. After Deshaun Watson and just before Justin Fields and Aaron Rodgers.
With the added help on the offensive line and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase, the offense should be more explosive, and Burrow is a value at that price in a startup. Acquiring in trade, most owners will likely be in the same court and not giving any discount. I fully expect a huge season for Burrow and for him to be a QB in 2021.
Projection: 4,125 yards, 27 TDs, 10 INTs, 250 yds. rushing, 5 TDs rushing
THE REST OF THE QUARTERBACKS
For fantasy purposes and Cincinnati Bengals QBs, it begins and ends with Burrow. Brandon Allen is a solid backup but not serviceable for fantasy purposes. He led the Bengals to a win over Houston in Week 15 and threw for 371 yards with a pair of scores. If you needed to start him any other week, he did very little, and you were disappointed.
Kyle Shurmur, a third-year Vanderbilt product, is listed as third-string and has not thrown a pass in the NFL yet. The fourth-string QB is Eric Dungey from Syracuse, and he has not seen NFL action either.
Mixon just turned 25 and is in the first year of his four-year, $48 million contract extension. He only appeared in six games last season and fought a foot injury all year. The rushing numbers suffered behind the bad line and injury; he rushed for 428 yards and 3 scores but only averaged 3.6 yards a tote. His involvement in the passing game saved him – 21 receptions over those six games.
Reports on the injury recovery have been encouraging, and Mixon is ready to shoulder the full load. Long-time backup Giovani Bernard is off to Tampa Bay, and Mixon will likely see more third-down work due to his departure. Mixon will rarely leave the field with the running back depth behind him, largely inexperienced. The passing offense should guarantee he never sees a stacked box, and lanes should be easy to run through.
Mixon is being drafted in the fourth round of Superflex startups and is in the RB16 range. Ahead of Javonte Williams, Austin Ekeler, and David Montgomery. Behind vets like Aaron Jones and Derrick Henry. If he gets the workload the staff is talking about; he will end up being a value for the price he is going for.
I searched for a few trades involving Mixon on DLF’s Trade Finder and was shocked at how inexpensive he was to acquire. A few that caught my eye were Mixon for Tony Pollard and Chase Claypool (why can’t I be in this league?) and Mixon with Allen Robinson for D’Andre Swift and Laviska Shenault. Both I would take in a heartbeat to get Mixon.
2021 has the potential to be the biggest year of Mixon’s career, and he has a few good seasons left in him before he hits the “RB Cliff.” I am buying Mixon, where I am able and expect an RB1 season.
Projection: 1,270 yards, 8 TDs rushing, 55 catches for 395 yards and 5 TDs receiving
THE REST OF THE RUNNING BACKS
Samaje Perine emerged as the primary backup last season and performed strongly in Mixon’s absence. He rushed for 301 yards at a 4.8 YPC clip, also catching 11 passes. He could be the primary back if Mixon goes down for an extended period.
Trayveon Williams played some in 2020, rushing for 157 yards on 26 carries over ten games but only caught five passes. The third-year back could get more touches in the event of a Mixon absence as well.
Now that his time as Captain America is over, Chris Evans brings his talents to the Queen City and could be a wild card in the mix. He is a natural athlete and has great size for a running back. As a pass-catcher, Evans excels and could see touches early because of that skill. He’s a solid back who could see time as a third-down guy, but not sure there is much fantasy value here unless he entirely absorbs the role Bernard left.
I am listing Chase as the WR1 despite Tee Higgins’ strong 2020 – I think Chase is “that dude” and will be it from Day 1. Chase had one of the most dominant college seasons in history in 2019, with Burrow as the man pulling the trigger.
Chase opted out of 2020 early, and it was likely the correct move with LSU struggling all season and COVID affecting every other game. He’s an alpha receiver and plays with swagger – it’s going to be his ball if it comes his way, and he loves when it becomes physical. Chase tracks the ball well, adjusts to it in the air, and has phenomenal body control. A good route runner as well, he will need to learn to create separation in his routes a little better to be a truly elite receiver.
It’s also hard to overstate how important he will be to Burrow’s maturation. They had an uncanny bond at LSU, Burrow often threw where only Chase could get it, and they trusted each other. If the line isn’t improved, this could be critical – they completed many timing routes where Burrow quickly threw to a spot he knew Chase would be at LSU. The Bengals need to make sure they take advantage of this. Chase is incredibly dangerous after the catch.
Chase is also being drafted in the fourth round of Superflex startups, as the WR14 on average. Just behind D.J. Moore and Chris Godwin but before Amari Cooper and his teammate Higgins. Chase was the first WR drafted in every rookie draft as well, and his cost is high – if you don’t have him, it will be hard to attain him.
Projection: 94 receptions for 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns (don’t @ me!)
Forming the other half of the most talented young duo of WRs in the NFL is Higgins, who came on strong in the second half of 2020. Over half of his 105 targets came after week 10, and Bengals QBs quickly learned how reliable Higgins could be.
Higgins wins in similar ways as Chase – he has great ball skills, tracks and then adjusts to the ball well in the air, and has great body control. He is better on the outside and doesn’t venture inside as well as Chase, though. Higgins is long and lean; he wins by using his size and length to gain leverage and has an enormous catch radius. He’s better as a deep threat – his stride covers a lot of ground, but he doesn’t have true breakaway speed.
As mentioned above, Higgins is being drafted just after Chase, late in the fourth or early in the fifth typically. WR17 behind Allen Robinson and ahead of Keenan Allen or Brandon Aiyuk. I have trouble with Higgins ahead of both of those players, and his value has to take a little bit of a hit with Chase on board.
I believe Higgins will always be the WR2 on his own team and will be hard-pressed to reach WR1 numbers. He’s an excellent receiver but may be held back some with so much competition for targets. Higgins is still a good player, and I love what he brings to the team, but I wonder if his ceiling will be limited by the situation.
Projection: 72 catches for 935 yards and 7 TDs
As if guarding Chase and Higgins wasn’t tough enough for defenses, Boyd has been one of the most productive slot receivers over the past three seasons in the NFL.
Boyd eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2018 and 2019 and is a perfect slot receiver for the Bengals’ offense. He is proficient at finding holes in the defense and has sure hands, rarely dropping a pass. Boyd has a secure role in the offense and is a lock to be a WR3 who can give you consistent if unspectacular numbers.
On average, he is being drafted in the eighth round, as WR32 – ahead of Robert Woods and Tyler Lockett but behind Chase Claypool and Cooper Kupp. This player range is confusing, and all probably could go many directions as far as value. I like Woods a lot more but Claypool much less. Boyd is consistent, although what we have seen is his absolute ceiling.
Projection: 85 catches for 880 yards and 5 TDs
THE REST OF THE WIDE RECEIVERS
I love Auden Tate as a hold, a player who could produce if either outside receiver goes down in particular. He caught 40 passes for 575 yards in 2019 and has that “my ball” attitude you love to see in your outside receiver.
Mike Thomas is a super deep hold, he has been someone who filled in at times but hasn’t been much of a factor.
Sample is listed as the TE1 on the 2021 depth chart but not a player worth starting. He’s a potential filler if you need to start two tight ends and bye weeks rob you of a starter or two. Sample will have a few games with catches and production, but it’s like spinning a roulette wheel trying to guess which games it will be.
THE REST OF THE TIGHT ENDS
C.J. Uzomah has also produced in spurts, but it’s a guessing game as to which game it will be. The most interesting name is Thaddeus Moss, and I have him stashed on several of my rosters. He was on the productive LSU team lead by Burrow and caught 47 passes for 570 yards in that 2019 season. The son of Randy Moss, he’s an athletic TE with good size and speed. It wouldn’t be tough for him to usurp all the other TEs in this lackluster group.
The 2021 Bengals offense could be a gold mine for fantasy owners, and the team should be incredibly explosive. There are potential elite options at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.
As a Bengals fan, I approached with a little apprehension and tried to temper my projections a little. This team will be fun, and even if we lose 10 games or more again, we will score a heckuva lot of points doing it.
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