2020 Outlook: Cincinnati Bengals
QB: Joe Burrow (Rookie Season - Rd. 1 Pick 1 Overall - 23 Years Old)
Joe Burrow -- 2019 National Champion and Heisman Trophy Winner -- became the fourth No. 1 overall pick in Bengals history, and the first since Carson Palmer in 2003. Burrow was responsible for 65 total touchdowns (60 passing -- FBS record -- and 5 rushing) his Senior Year at LSU. His accuracy earned him the nation's second-best completion percentage since 1956 at 76%. That's obviously an impressive college career, arguably the best ever by a QB, but let's look ahead to his first season in the NFL. He'll be tasked with trying to spark a 2-14 team that was 30th in overall scoring offense ahead of only NYJ and WAS, but 19th in passing offense and gets back All-Pro WR AJ Green and 11th overall pick from last year's draft OT Jonah Williams, each of which missed 2019 due to injury. Both are huge upgrades to the Bengals' offense, but Williams is especially needed up front as CIN did not have a single offensive lineman ranked in the Top 50% of players at their respective position in 2019 according to Pro Football Focus.
Because Burrow is a rookie, we have no NFL stats to compare to or further predict his production heading into 2020. However, we can look at the team, coaching staff tendencies and overall situation around him. That's what we'll do throughout this article. Burrow's skill players are listed throughout the rest of this article, but I'm going to also mention his HC and OC who will have influence on Joe Burrow's introduction to the NFL in year one.
Head Coach: Zac Taylor
2019 -- A year to forget for the "Bungals" who were actually 6th in pass attempts as a team, but 32nd (dead last) in completion percentage. As mentioned above, Joe Burrow will help close that gap tremendously.
2018 -- Taylor helped guide Rams QB Jared Goff to career highs in every major passing category — completions (364), attempts (561), passing yards (4688), passing TDs (32), completion percentage (64.9), yards per attempt (8.36) and passer rating (101.1). Goff ranked fourth in the NFL in passing yards and eighth in passer rating.
2012-2015 -- Taylor helped then MIA QB Ryan Tannehill's early development, the team's first-round draft pick in 2012, so he's dealt with the Rookie QB aspect already -- another plus for Burrow. Tannehill's 15,460 passing yards in his first four seasons are the third-most among all quarterbacks in NFL history in their first four seasons, behind only future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning (1998-2001; 16,418) and Hall of Famer Dan Marino (1983-86; 16,177).
Offensive Coordinator: Brian Callahan
2019 (Callahan's first year in CIN) -- In just 13 games, Andy Dalton was 11th in pass attempts and would have paced out to 5th overall behind only Winston, Goff, Ryan and Brady with ~609 pass attempts overall. The Red Rifle was also Top 15 in Dropbacks and Air Yards Attempted.
2018 -- Under Callahan as quarterbacks coach, Raiders QB Derek Carr recorded 4,049 passing yards (career high) and a 93.9 passer rating. Carr also led the AFC and ranked fifth in the NFL in completion percentage (68.9), and ranked fourth in the AFC and sixth in the NFL in total completions (381).
2016-2017 -- Callahan was quarterbacks coach with the Detroit Lions. Over the course of his two years in Detroit, Lions QB Matthew Stafford ranked in the top-10 among NFL passers in TD passes (53), passing yards (8,773), completions (759), completion percentage (65.5) and INT percentage (1.7).
2012-2015 -- Callahan also helped the Broncos' offense to four consecutive seasons of 4,000 passing yards.
In 2014 -- Callahan helped the Broncos finish fourth in the NFL in total offense (402.9 yards per game) and second in points per game (30.1).
In 2013 -- Callahan coached Broncos QB Peyton Manning to his fifth Most Valuable Player award and the NFL's single-season record for TD passes (55). Manning and the Broncos' offense scored an NFL-record 606 points and racked up a ridiculous 457.3 yards per game (second-most in NFL history).
All of this is to show that Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan have a long standing track record with different teams and quarterbacks resulting in the same high-powered offenses. Aside from Goff's 2018 Rams and Manning's 2013 Broncos, Burrow may have the best overall surrounding cast Taylor and Callahan have had to work with in their respective careers. Burrow is certainly the front-runner for Offensive Rookie Of The Year in 2020.
RB: Joe Mixon (4th Season - 23 Years Old)
Joe Mixon had two completely different halves of 2019. Weeks 1-7 he was RB35 (8.9 PPR fantasy points per game (pprfppg)), but weeks 8-17 he was RB6 (18.1 pprfppg). The Bengals struggled all season last year for a number of reasons. Adapting to new HC Zac Taylor and trying to overcome injuries proved too much as they ended up so bad they were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft (see above). Andy Dalton missed 3 games, AJ Green and Jonah Williams didn’t play at all and multiple offensive and defensive lineman missed time as well. One bright spot for CIN was Mixon himself though who played all 16 games for the first time in his three year career.
Mixon was 131 rush yards, eight receptions, nine receiving yards and one total touchdown away from his career highs from 2018. He had one less TD in 2019, but over 1,400 total yards for the second straight season. He was tied for 5th in the league with 278 carries with Chris Carson, but the Bengals were 32nd (last) in the league in points scored — never a good sign for a RB, let alone one of Joe Mixon’s potential. One positive from that is Mixon was 2nd in carries inside the 5 yard line. At least when CIN gets close, they turn to Mixon.
There’s a lot of moving parts for CIN in 2020. Rookie QB, AJ Green returning, healthy o-line and another year in Zac Taylor’s “high powered” offense. With Joe Burrow at QB and the Bengals resetting for 2020 I expect them to surprise. I think Joe Mixon has the potential to be the overall RB1 personally, but with so many unknowns in CIN he falls behind the Big 5 RBs for me. I am very excited to draft him in the back of the 1st or early 2nd round though as he's as close to a "bell-cow" RB the NFL has these days.
RB: Gio Bernard (8th Season - 28 Years Old)
Gio Bernard used to be a great middle-to-late round PPR scoop (a la James White) a few years ago earning at least 1,000 total yards from 2013-2015, but he has faded dramatically since Mixon showed up in 2017. That trend continues as Gio is coming off the worst season of his career, totaling 404 scoreless yards and 3.2 YPC in a distant support role to Joe Mixon. By releasing Bernard, CIN would save $2.8 million in cap space. With Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson in the wings as Mixon's backups (assuming either can stay healthy), Bernard could see free agency and/or a new team once the season starts. Gio had his time in fantasy football, but he's no longer valuable.
WR: AJ Green (10th Season (missed 2019) - 31 Years Old)
AJ Green has been one of the most prolific WR's in the NFL since he came into the league in 2011. He's been a Top 10 fantasy WR every year he's played 16 games, but that's only four out of eight seasons. He was placed under the franchise tag by CIN after he and the organization couldn't agree to terms on a long term deal during the season. Unfortunately, although HC Zac Taylor has said that AJ Green is "fully healthy" coming into 2020, AJ's ego is a bit bruised and there's a chance he either holds out for a new contract or simply ends up elsewhere prior to the 2020 season. That said, let's operate under the condition that the 7-time Pro Bowler does suit up for the new look Bengals.
As mentioned above, CIN was dead last in offensive scoring, but 19th in passing offense in 2019. They had the worst completion percentage in the league and missed two of their best players on offense in AJ himself and OT Jonah Williams, plus (average) Andy missed three games as well. So, hypothetically, with Burrow coming in, everyone "healthy" and year two of Taylor + Callahan, this offense should thrive, right? That starts with AJ Green in my opinion. He's the season veteran on this young team and he's still a top-end WR in the NFL -- when healthy. So, let's look at pre-injury AJ Green and see what we can hope for in regards to 2020, assuming all shakes out with the business stuff.
Before going down with a toe sprain in week 9 of 2018 and then suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason of 2019, AJ Green was on pace for 82 receptions, 1,233 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns (tied career high) or WR17 in pprfppg. He's averaged the WR9 over seven seasons from 2012-2018. Here are the PPR finishes from Green since 2012...
2012: WR3 // 2013: WR4 // 2014: WR24 (13 games - WR16 pprfppg) // 2015: WR8 // 2016: WR34 (10 games - WR5 pprfppg) // 2017: WR10 // 2018: WR44 (9 games - WR17 pprfppg)
If AJ Green does play 16 games, historically, he should be a Top 10 fantasy WR. That's a big if as he's missed 23 games over the last two seasons after just eight from 2011-2017. Perhaps the biggest hurdle(s) (aside from injury concerns) though is the rest of the wide receiving corps: Tyler Boyd, (R) Tee Higgins, John Ross and Auden Tate.
WR: Tyler Boyd (5th Season - 25 Years Old)
Tyler Boyd set career highs in targets (148), receptions (90) and receiving yards (1,046) in 2019 and finished WR18 overall, but was only WR26 in pprfppg. This is with AJ Green not playing a snap, John Ross battling injuries once again and little run game for CIN over the first half of the season. As much as I believe in the talent of Tyler Boyd, these are yellow flags for me -- not red flags, but certainly something to consider heading into 2020. In 2018, AJ Green played the first 8 games before going down for the season. During that time, Green was WR8 and Boyd was WR12 in PPR. From Week 9 on, Boyd somehow plummeted to WR26 in pprfppg as the new No. 1 for CIN. Now, he did go on IR himself after Week 14, but it's clear that he was far better as a No. 2 to Green than a true No. 1 in 2018. In 2019, he again got that chance to be the true No. 1 for CIN and did well personally as mentioned above, but was still a middle WR2. Granted, the Bengals had a lost season in many respects as mentioned numerous times already in this article, but Boyd arguably had the most consistency among all CIN players. While many worry about AJ Green returning (as of now) and rookie Tee Higgins (CLEM) possibly stepping in right away to take targets with John Ross and Auden Tate as other leaches to Boyd, I actually think he's better off as a support role with Green generating his usual double-coverage and linebackers focused on Joe Mixon in the backfield. With Boyd primarily playing in the slot in three-receiver sets, he should flourish.
As the following graph indicates, Boyd has been a top slot receiver over the last two seasons. If he stays in that role, with Burrow needing quick release options as a rookie, Boyd has a chance to impress and possibly exceed expectations. He's a steal at his current 7th round ADP as a WR3 for fantasy rosters, but I wouldn't expect more than middle WR2 return with so many mouths to feed in CIN in year one of Joe Burrow.
2018 - 2019 | 3rd | 2nd | 4th | 1st | 8th | T-7th |T-14th | T-6th | T-8th
WR: Tee Higgins (Rookie Season - Rd. 2 Pick 33 Overall - 21 Years Old)
Tee Higgins was/is one of my favorite wide receivers in this draft class -- I ranked him WR3 behind only CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy pre NFL draft. That said, this is both a disappointing and very exciting landing spot in year one as a rookie with an uncertain off season and training camp due to COVID-19. Let's look at both sides.
Joe Burrow hand selected Tee Higgins as the first pick of Round 2 in the NFL Draft.
Higgins was very productive at CLEM tying DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins for most career touchdowns with 27 -- 12 as a Sophomore and 13 as a Junior.
Tee played in the last two National Championships winning in 2018 and losing in 2019 to his now quarterback Joe Burrow and the LSU (other) Tigers. Both Burrow and Higgins bring a winning attitude and culture to a team that has not finished .500 or better since 2015 and hasn't won a playoff game since 1990!
Higgins is at best WR3 on the depth chart coming in and most likely WR4 to start as long as John Ross is healthy. There are murmurs out of CIN media that Higgins could slot in as the WR3 right away alongside AJ Green and Tyler Boyd, but as mentioned above, it'll be tough to earn that pedigree as a rookie without a proper training camp or on-field rapport with QB Joe Burrow. That said, I don't think it takes long for Higgins to become the Bengals' WR3 in a high-powered offense.
Positioning. Where does Higgins fit into this offense? He's one of four CIN receivers 6' 2" or taller (Tate 6' 5", Green 6' 4", Higgins 6' 4" and Boyd 6' 2"), plus John Ross is 5' 11" and set the record at the NFL combine with a 4.22 40-yard dash. The Bengals have the outside covered with Green, Ross, even Auden Tate and Boyd should man the slot, so... Does Higgins play a little bit of everywhere until he earns his stripes?
I personally love Tee Higgins and so do the Bengals. With AJ Green potentially on his way out of CIN in the near future and John Ross barley able to stay on the field, I see Higgins finding his place sooner than later and a steal at his rookie ADP of 1.12, but in regards to 2020 redraft, he's a deep sleeper at best. Though, worth a stash if you get Green, Boyd or Ross as Higgins could be a late spark if the Bengals catch stride in year one with Burrow.
WR: John Ross (4th Season - 24 Years Old)
John Ross is more than just a speedster and a lethal weapon when on the field as evident from his 270 yards and three touchdowns over the first two weeks of 2019 (@ SEA and vs. SF no less). However, the issue (similar to many deep threats) is his inability to stay healthy. He's played just 24 of 48 possible games in his three-year career -- 50%. Ross is a perfect compliment to the rest of the CIN giant receivers as a field stretching burner, but he's unreliable and as mentioned above, now competes with Tee Higgs for the WR3 spot for the Bengals with AJ Green returning and a rookie quarterback. He's a great grab in Best Ball formats, but I'll pass in redraft and dynasty leagues for now.
WR: Auden Tate (3rd Season - 23 Years Old)
Auden Tate is 5th on the wide receiver depth chart for CIN, but did have a fun few weeks last year in AJ Green's absence. Tate had double-digit targets three times between Weeks 3-8, but had more than five receptions just once, more than 80 receiving yards just twice and one touchdown on the season. He's an afterthought in all formats, but if AJ goes down again or holds out due to contract frustrations, Tate could possibly find snaps and Redzone targets as the Bengals' tallest receiver at 6'5". Although, if AJ misses time, that probably means that Tee Higgins just steps in for that work. Tate is better than his stats show, but he's buried on the Bengals' roster and shouldn't be on yours.
TE: CJ Uzomah (6th Season - 27 Years Old)
The Bengals led the league in "11 personnel" usage last season. That's 1 RB and 1 TE in the formation. That leaves 3 WRs as there are a possible five eligible pass catchers allowed on a given play. Therefore, there's little opportunity for Uzomah who actually digressed in production after getting a contract extension following his decent 2018 season. Long time (albeit annually injured) TE Tyler Eifert is now in Jacksonville, so Uzomah is the guy, but as you've read throughout this article the Bengals are stacked with five quality pass catchers at receiver, plus Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard out of the backfield. Uzomah is the 5th option at best in the passing game for CIN. With nine of Uzomah's 27 receptions coming in the final two games of the season, he's merely a TE2 in TE-premium leagues (1.5 ppr), so I don't see him being relevant for fantasy.
TE: Drew Sample (2nd Season - 24 Years Old)
Drew Sample caught a pedestrian 46 passes in his four years at the University of Washington. He's primarily a blocking TE. Unless Uzomah and a few other CIN receivers go down, Sample is also irrelevant in fantasy in all formats.