Cincinnati Bengals 2022 Fantasy Football Preview
2021 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 6,145 (13th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 52 (7th)
Offensive Plays: 1,046 (25th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 610 (20th)
Rush Attempts: 436 (19th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 67 (28th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 0 (31st)
In his fourth season as an NFL head coach, Zac Taylor took the Bengals to their first Super Bowl since 1989. Yet, to hear fantasy nerds tell it, the former quarterback is no offensive guru. In fact, the nerds are furious.
Despite an absolutely loaded passing game, the Bengals were frustratingly conservative in 2021. Before benching their starters in Week 18, Cincinnati passed on just 52.4% of neutral situations last season, the 13th-highest rate. That was lower than the Dolphins, Giants, and Ravens. The Bengals also had a -4% pass rate over expected on 1st-and-10. This was especially frustrating because defenses cannot play 1st-and-10 as a pure passing down...making it one of the best times to pass. The Bengals’ electric passing game sometimes appeared to be succeeding despite Taylor, as he used offensive tactics seemingly designed to hide his quarterback.
There are a few reasons to cut Taylor some slack. First, the Bengals were more aggressive in the playoffs. Their situation-neutral pass rate jumped to 60.2%, which was in line with the Buccaneers’ 2021 rate. Their pass rate over expected on 1st-and-10 also jumped from -4% to 1%, and their overall PROE jumped from 0% to 5%.
Second, Taylor has been aggressive through the air before; in Burrow’s 11 games as a rookie, the Bengals had a 59.3% situation-neutral pass rate, the fourth-highest in the league. That ended in tears, with Burrow rupturing his ACL, which may have impacted Taylor’s approach to 2021. Because, third, the 2021 Bengals were operating with an offensive line that ranked 29th in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking grades.
It seems plausible that Taylor viewed it as part of his job in 2021 to keep Burrow healthy, even if that meant suboptimal playcalling. Once in the playoffs, Taylor seemed more comfortable with entrusting Burrow to get them to the Super Bowl. Of course, it’s also possible that Taylor is overly conservative and will ultimately hold back one of the league’s most potent passing attacks.
Joe Burrow was impressively productive as a rookie, but his efficiency wasn’t great in 2020. He finished 21st in EPA per play, behind Teddy Bridgewater and tied with Matt Ryan. His accuracy was at least above average, finishing 15th in completion percentage over expected. Burrow then took a major step forward in his second season. Still working back from an ACL tear to start the year, Burrow finished ninth in EPA per play and led the league in completion percentage over expected.
Burrow’s accuracy was put to good use last season by the league’s best wide receiver trio: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Chase and Burrow picked up where they left off at LSU, with the rookie delivering an unreal 2.44 yards per route run. Chase is one of just five rookies to hit 2.4+ YPRR on 50+ targets, joining Odell Beckham (2.75), Justin Jefferson (2.66), Alvin Kamara (2.62), Martavis Bryant (2.51), and A.J. Brown (2.42). Given his stellar prospect profile and locked-in connection with Burrow, it’s hard to overstate Chase’s 2022 ceiling.
At the same time, Tee Higgins should not be viewed as a pure No. 2 option behind Chase. First of all, Higgins was targeted on a higher percentage of his routes. Chase’s main advantage came in routes run. Excluding Week 18, Chase ran 37.1 routes per game to 35.7 for Higgins. Chase also had a spectacular 11.7 yards per target, but Higgins’ 10.3 YPT was also quite good, and he delivered an elite 2.18 YPRR. Higgins profiles as a star; he just happens to play alongside a superstar. Chase’s presence will limit his overall impact, but Higgins’ weekly ceiling is massive.
Tyler Boyd looks more like a true No. 3 option. His 1.38 yards per route run ranked 63rd among wide receivers with 50+ targets. He also brought a one-dimensional element to the passing game, playing 89% of his snaps in the slot with a 7.6 average depth of target. Boyd is a pure underneath slot receiver, but he isn’t bad in that role, and defenses will have their attention elsewhere on virtually every dropback. As a reliable chain mover, Boyd has intriguing fantasy upside if the passing game opens up a bit more.
C.J. Uzomah departed in the offseason to join the Jets, and the Bengals brought in Hayden Hurst as the new starting tight end. Hurst’s career has been fairly disappointing so far. With a career YPRR of 1.21, he’s fallen well short of the expectations that made him the 25th overall pick in the 2018 draft. Last season, he set a career-low 1.00 YPRR while operating as Kyle Pitts’ backup, but the bar isn’t all that high for usable production in this offense. C.J. Uzomah managed to have a few spike weeks with just 1.12 YPRR in 2021 because he averaged 28.5 routes per game. Hurst finished as the PPR TE9 in 2020 on the back of 33 routes per game despite 1.08 YPRR, which at the time was a career-low. Hurst is unlikely to run that many routes this year but looks like a favorite to hit 400 yards, a mark only 24 tight ends achieved in 2021.
Joe Mixon set career highs in the 2021 regular season with 1,205 rushing yards, 314 receiving yards, 16 total touchdowns, 289 PPR points, and 18.1 PPR points per game. It was a great year for a back who is only entering his age-26 season. Mixon had a 67% snap share in 2021, after a 65% snap share in 2020, and safely projects for about two-thirds of the snaps again this season. That locks him into a solid lead-back role but potentially caps his upside. There’s always the chance that Mixon beats his workload with a highly efficient season, but after finishing RB27 in NFL Next Gen’s rush yards over expected per attempt, RB40 in PFF’s elusive rating, RB36 in breakaway percentage, and RB42 in yards per route run, that doesn’t seem likely. Mixon is a decent all-around running back, but his upside will come primarily from racking up touchdowns. After scoring 16 last season, it’s hard to see him building substantially on 2021 unless he captures a bigger snap share.
Behind Mixon, the Bengals seem excited about second-year player Chris Evans, who may take on a bigger role this year. Evans only ran 73 routes in 2021, seeing just 19 targets, but he flashed elite efficiency with 2.11 YPRR, trailing only Chase and Higgins on the team. An expanded role for Evans shouldn’t have a big impact on Mixon but would instead come at the expense of Samaje Perine. Perine took on the Giovani Bernard role in the offense in 2021 and was serviceable with 1.20 YPRR, but Perine was kept in to block on 17% of his snaps, the second-highest rate on the team behind Drew Sample. If the Bengals’ offensive line takes a step forward, Cincinnati could trade Perine blocks for Evans routes.
The Bengals were actually a respectable run-blocking unit in 2021, finishing 14th in PFF’s run blocking grades, but they were rough in pass protection, finishing 29th. It’s never great to have a bad pass-blocking line, but it’s a major problem for a Joe Burrow-led team. Burrow took a sack on 26.9% of his pressured dropbacks in 2021...only Baker Mayfield was worse. Burrow also showed a worrisome propensity for taking sacks at LSU; this is likely just who Burrow is on some level. He’ll need better protection for the Bengals’ passing offense to take another step forward.
Fortunately, the Bengals have overhauled their line since last year. Cincinnati added RT La’el Collins, RG Alex Cappa, and C Ted Karras in free agency, all of whom profile as major upgrades. Left tackle will be manned by returning starter Jonah Williams. Williams was the No. 11 overall pick in 2019 and played starter-worthy football in 2021. Jackson Carman, the Bengals 2021 second-rounder, will start at left guard. Carman will need to take a step forward to avoid being a weak spot. Still, the Bengals’ 2021 line had several major pain points. If the unit gels this season and their young players take a step forward, the offensive line could transform from a major weakness into a strength.
PointsBet Over/Under: 9.5
The Bengals over-performed in 2021. That seems almost inarguable. Their 84 point-differential was two points lower than the Colts and one point above the Cardinals. The Bengals also flashed an elite offensive ceiling. If their offensive line takes a significant step forward, we could regularly see them hit that ceiling in 2022.
With the sixth-hardest schedule according to Warren Sharp’s rankings, they could have a tough time getting back to last season’s 10-7 record, even with a better overall team. However, the potential for an improved line also opens the door to a more optimal offensive philosophy—a philosophy that seeks to feature Burrow instead of limiting his hits. The Bengals first down playcalling resembled the Patriots in 2021; if they take an approach similar to the Rams or Cowboys—a tier or two down from the Bills/Chiefs/Buccaneers—they have an offense that can easily surpass 9 wins.