2019 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,169 (26th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 18 (28th)
Offensive Plays: 1,049 (9th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 664 (5th)
Rush Attempts: 385 (25th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 64 (27th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 32 (21st)
Zac Taylor, labeled an offensive stalwart and disciple of Sean McVay’s coaching tree, returns for his second year at the helm as a true unknown. The 37-year-old coach’s resume includes coordinating the Cincinnati Bearcats to the fifth-fewest points scored among 128 FBS teams in 2016, a jump to the Rams as an assistant receivers coach the following year, a promotion as McVay’s quarterbacks coach in ‘18, and the conductor of Football Outsiders’ No. 29 Offense DVOA with two wins in his first year as head honcho. In Taylor’s defense, everything that could go wrong did: the first pick of the new regime, Jonah Williams, was lost for the year after tearing his labrum in offseason workouts; Cordy Glenn, who moved to left tackle to replace Williams, missed 10 games with a concussion; starting G Christian Westerman announced his retirement mid-summer; A.J. Green was sidelined from mysterious injuries throughout the year; and John Ross, the team’s only downfield threat at the time, mustered eight appearances due to a clavicle injury suffered in Week 4. It’s enough reason to give Taylor a fair shake from the season opener.
Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded collegiate quarterback under pressure, outside of the pocket, on long-developing plays (3.1 seconds to throw), into tight windows, and when targeting his second read last year, Ohio’s prodigal son, Joe Burrow, lands in an elite situation poised to maximize his unfazed demeanor and surgical accuracy to the shallow (86.5% completion rate), intermediate (68.6%), and deep (56.6%) levels of the field from day one. Burrow’s transition from Joe Brady’s spacious quick-tempo attack to Taylor’s scheme should be seamless: both play-callers led their respective leagues in 11 personnel, utilizing three-wide sets flush with talent at FBS- and NFL-high rates. (Cincinnati did finish 12th in shotgun rate and 30th in no-huddle usage — staples of Brady’s National Championship offense — last year, but OC Brian Callahan has hinted at evolving in order for Burrow “to be himself.”) The 23-year-old also offers a heightened rushing floor with 243/767/12 and 8.6 carries per game across 28 starts with LSU. Gifted the eighth-softest passing schedule on paper and the legs to separate himself from the middle of the pack under center, Burrow’s outlook includes a top-12 finish as a weekly starter in standard leagues. He’s currently being valued as the overall QB18 in high-stakes formats.
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Green, 32 at the end of July, is reportedly “fully healthy” ahead of camp but has yet to sign his $17.9 million franchise tag after long-term negotiations with the team fell through. Having appeared in just 35 of a possible 64 games the past four years (and 9-of-32 in the last two), Green has ultimately been sidelined since Week 9 of the 2018 season. Given his range of outcomes (including ruin) as an unknown commodity in this offense and organization, he’s a player I’m more than comfortable being lower than consensus on universally.
Anticipated to play the very role that allowed Justin Jefferson to set the Tigers’ school record for receptions (111) last year, Tyler Boyd enters his second season under Taylor fresh off career-highs in targets (148, seventh-most in the league), catches (90), and receiving yards (1,046) on the league’s sixth-most routes from the slot. Green’s pending return has been cited as a concern for the 25-year-old, but the veteran’s presence previously sucked away elite corners and helped Boyd peak with 17.4 fantasy points per game in nine starts in ‘18 compared to the 13.8 he’s averaged in 21 contests without Green the past two seasons (per the RotoViz Game Splits App). With no competition to write home about from the slot, Boyd again projects to lead the Bengals across the board in their receiving game. He’s my WR30 for Best-Ball scoring.
The first pick of Day 2, Clemson rookie Tee Higgins (6’4/216) figures to start in three-wide sets ahead of Ross after the front office declined the latter’s fifth-year option post-draft (and sunk second-round capital into the other). An over-the-top specialist who compensates for his poor speed (4.54 40-time) with overpowering size, Higgins averaged the third-most yards per target (13.4) among his peers, soaking up 15-of-23 downfield shots for 565 yards last year. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine Ross’ blazing 4.22 speed getting put on the back burner after Taylor leveraged the 24-year-old’s unique skillset into a 15.6 average depth of target and 109.3 air yards per game in eight appearances. The two developing receivers will undoubtedly cannibalize each other in year one, eventually paving the way for Higgins to walk into an every-down role in 2021. For that reason, Ross projects as an asset strictly on the field for Cincinnati (rather than in fantasy lineups) while Higgins remains a confident selection in the mid-second round of dynasty startups. If one usurps the role to himself at any point this year, note that PFF charted Burrow with a perfect passer rating and 18 completions (on 23 attempts) for 519 yards and 10 touchdowns when targeting the vertical route tree — the predominant route in both Higgins’ and Ross’ bag of tricks. Third-year wideout Auden Tate (6’5/228), who tied for the team lead in targets inside the 10-yard line (7), is also around but won’t serve as a consistent fantasy threat on a stacked depth chart despite his contested-catch prowess.
Whereas C.J. Uzomah previously battled Tyler Eifert for fruitful red zone reps, the latter’s departure to Jacksonville vacates 23.8 routes per game and seven targets inside the 10 from the tight end position. Uzomah was in on 58.2% of Cincinnati’s snaps on the surface but quietly saw an increase to 64.1% over the last eight contests after teams failed to bite on Eifert at the trade deadline. With an entrenched role and expanded opportunity this upcoming season, Uzomah is the ideal player for three tight-end builds in Best-Ball leagues.
Context is crucial when analyzing Joe Mixon’s career-high 313 touches from last year as the team, 0-8 at the time, threw rookie quarterback Ryan Finley into the fire and proceeded to cement the ball into Mixon’s belly for 22.1 carries per game just to get the hell out of Dodge over the second half of the season; Cincinnati’s run play rate unsurprisingly increased from 29% (31st-overall) through Week 8 to 56%, the league’s eighth-highest mark, from Week 10 on. The 23-year-old was still as efficient as ever, creating space in spite of his trenches’ 3.90 Adjusted Line Yards for a career-high 3.15 yards after contact per attempt. Last year's No. 11 overall pick Williams previously graded as PFF College’s top run-blocking tackle in ‘18 and should immediately help road grate lanes in his first career snaps as the Bengals trailed only the Chiefs (2.35 yards per carry) and Jets (2.80) when running behind the left tackle (2.90) position last year. Although Mixon is reportedly “prepared to holdout” without a new deal, odds are the two sides come to terms once Green is officially prohibited from inking a multi-year extension following the July 15 deadline. Mixon’s FFPC ADP as the overall RB8 is his floor. His ceiling includes a top-five finish if Burrow targets Cincinnati’s running backs at an NFL-average rate.
There’s no guarantee Giovani Bernard would receive bell-cow treatment if Mixon stayed away, but the 28-year-old was the only runner to be involved behind the latter last year, out-snapping Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson by a combined 457 to 8. Williams in particular is an intriguing flier as one offensive coach told ESPN’s Matthew Berry that the team remains “very high” on the former Texas A&M prospect. Jim Turner, Williams’ o-line coach while he rushed for 600/3,615/34 and 6.0 YPC across three seasons with the Aggies, is also currently the Bengals’ line coach. I’ve treated Bernard as the pivot in 20-round Best-Ball drafts. Williams is a shot in the dark strictly for 28-round FFPC leagues.
Cincinnati’s serene schedule coupled with the 11th-toughest slate based on Vegas Win Totals is ideal for up-tempo fantasy goodness. Projecting the defense as a true pass funnel following the band-aid additions of Mackensie Alexander (PFF’s No. 70 corner among 218 qualifiers last year), Trae Waynes (No. 75) and LeShaun Sims (No. 181) is the cherry on top. But 2020 will be Burrow’s third offensive scheme in the last three years, and the front-seven offers little pass rush to carry the offense during any learning curves. The Bengals’ 5.5 Season Win Total seems dead on, with the team likely falling in the 4-6 wins range.