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2023 Cincinnati Bengals Fantasy Preview

Simms: 'Stars are aligning' for Burrow's MVP push
Chris Simms, Ahmed Fareed, Drew Dinsick and Jay Croucher review several NFL futures markets and highlight several potential picks including Joe Burrow for MVP, Russell Wilson as Comeback Player of the Year and more.

2022 Stats (rank)
Points per game: 26.1 (7th)
Total yards per game: 360.5 (8th)
Plays per game: 65.8 (7th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks per game: 40.9 (5th)
Dropback EPA per play: 0.15 (5th)
Rush attempts per game: 24.9 (24th)
Rush EPA per play: -0.06 (16th)

Coaching Staff
Through two seasons, Zac Taylor held a 6-25-1 record. His team showed promise under Joe Burrow before the No. 1 overall pick tore his ACL, but the team’s record was enough to have Taylor on the hot seat heading into his third year at the helm. Then, with Burrow healthy and Ja’Marr Chase on the roster, the offense took flight in 2021. The team made it to the Super Bowl where they ultimately lost to the Rams. Burrow and the rest of the team took another step forward in 2022, scoring more points and pushing their win total to 12. They again lost to the Super Bowl champions in the playoffs, though this time their defeat came at the hands of Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship.

The incredible turnaround over the past two years has made both of Taylor’s coordinators hot names for promotions around the league. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan interviewed with the Colts and Cardinals for their head coaching vacancies. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo got two interviews with the Cardinals. Taylor ultimately escaped the offseason with both of his right-hand men still in Cincinnati, but 2023 may be his last season with both men.

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Passing Game
QB: Joe Burrow, Trevor Siemian
WR: Ja’Marr Chase, Trenton Irwin
WR: Tee Higgins, Charlie Jones
WR: Tyler Boyd, Andrei Iosivas
TE: Irv Smith, Drew Sample

Burrow’s numbers in 2021 were otherworldly to a degree that had no chance of holding up over a multi-season sample. He led the league in completion rate (70.4 percent) and yards per attempt (8.9). As expected, his numbers in both metrics fell, settling at 68.3 percent and 7.4 respectively. Though this could have crushed his efficiency in the advanced stats, Burrow made up for the pair of statistical downturns by committing far fewer mistakes. He set a career-low in sack rate and cut his interception rate by .7 percent compared to 2021.

Burrow managed this by employing a more conservative game-plan when dropping back. His time to throw was .13 seconds below his career average and his aDOT fell by 1.3 yards. Though the stylistic changes may have slightly knocked his upside, the lack of negative plays nearly balanced things out for him when looking at his EPA. He averaged .165 EPA per play. That ranked seventh among all quarterbacks and was only .02 below his mark from 2021. The alterations to Burrow’s game also helped him handle the loss of Ja’Marr Chase, who missed four games because of a hip issue.

Chase didn’t break off as many outrageously long receptions in 2022 as he did in his rookie campaign. He scored more touchdowns of 50+ yards as a rookie than he had touchdowns of 30+ yards in his second season. Things like this are naturally going to ebb and flow from year to year. What isn’t is Chase’s talent. He managed to make up for this by averaging an extra 2.5 catches per game. Chase earned a 29 percent target share and a 37 percent air yards share. He had the seventh-highest weight opportunity rating of any receiver. Even if a lack of big plays took his efficiency down a peg, there’s no reason not to treat Chase as a top-three fantasy receiver.

Tee Higgins has made a name for himself as one of the best WR2s in the league. Most importantly, when Chase went down, Higgins stepped up. He averaged 6.5 catches for .5 touchdowns and 94 yards in four games without his counterpart. That was worth an additional 6.6 PPR points per game in those weeks. Contingent value at receiver is rare because scoring at the position is more directly tied to the players’ talent. The good news for Higgins is that he is incredibly talented and just happens to play alongside one of the best receivers in the league. Should Chase go down, Higgins would be in line for WR1 numbers.

The last member of the trio, Tyler Boyd, saw a sharp decline in 2022. His yards per route run (1.36), yards per game (47.6), and Pro Football Focus receiving grade (70.8) all hit five-year lows. His yards per route run has dropped in four consecutive seasons and ESPN Analytics has charted a consistent downward trend in his ability to get open. This may have been part of the reason the Bengals took receivers Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas on Day Three of the draft. Neither projects to start as a rookie, though Jones in particular could steal some routes from Boyd down the stretch.

Bengals de facto GM Duke Tobin let Hayden Hurst walk in free agency and replaced him with Irv Smith. A former second-round pick, Smith hasn’t lived up to the hype he garnered at Alabama but may have been turning the corner before suffering an ankle injury. From Week 2 to Week 6, he averaged 5.4 targets per game and topped a 50 percent snap share in every outing. He will still split reps with Drew Sample, who is a solid blocking tight end, but there’s room for Smith to post TE2 numbers in this high-flying offense.

Running Game
RB: Joe Mixon, Chase Brown, Chris Evans, Trayveon Williams
OL (L-R): Orlando Brown, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, Jonah Williams

Joe Mixon‘s status with the team remains up in the air as of the end of minicamp. Per The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr., Mixon’s future in Cincinnati depends on if he is “willing to realign his $12.8 million cap hit” with the current state of the running back market. Mixon wasn’t terrible last year, but it is hard to justify paying him the third-most money for a running back. He ranked 27th in rush yards over expected per attempt and 29th in broken tackle rate. Taylor also pulled Mixon off the field in passing situations, resulting in Samaje Perine out-snapping him 3:1 on third downs.

Assuming Mixon is still on the roster for the start of the season, he should see plenty of touches out of the gate. Mixon ranked sixth in rushing and receiving expected fantasy points combined. That was with Perine stealing 51 targets, good for the 20th-most expected fantasy points through the air for a running back. Perine walked in free agency for a two-year deal with the Broncos. If Mixon remains a member of the team and holds off the remaining backups for more work through the air, he has an easy path to another RB1 season.

Trayveon Williams has gotten some good press as a player who could step up in Perine’s absence, but it’s hard to buy into the hype too much. The coaches who are praising him this offseason are the same ones who have given him a total of 47 carries and 10 targets over the past four seasons.

Chris Evans showed some promise as a rookie, earning 32 touches as a lightly-used backup. He then opened the season as Cincinnati’s third-string back in 2022. This didn’t last long as midway through the season, Williams began making the game-day roster over Evans for his special teams prowess.

With both incumbents holding lackluster resumes in the NFL, there may be an opening for rookie Chase Brown to earn the backup gig. Brown was late bloomer in college, reaching 200 touches for the first and only time as a fifth-year senior. It was better late than never for the Illinois alum as he dropped a 328-1,643-10 rushing line while adding 240 yards and three scores through the air. Brown has the highest ceiling of any of the Cincy backups but still needs to earn the favor of Taylor and Callahan to see the field much. Should the team decide to move on from Mixon, they will undoubtedly add a veteran off the street to bolster their backfield.

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Win Total
PointsBet Over/Under: 11.5

Pick: Under

As is typically the case with division winners, the Bengals have a harder-than-average schedule in the upcoming season. Part of that is the turnaround in quarterback play that will happen in the AFC North. Last year, the Bengals faced each of their divisional rivals’ backup or third-string quarterbacks once. Cincinnati also lost both of their starting safeties and a number of other contributors in free agency. They still deserve to be the top dog in the AFC North, but other teams should provide more resistance this time around. I see them finishing with 10 or 11 wins, culminating in a Week 18 date with the Browns that decides the fate of the division.