Cincinnati Bengals Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: For Most Consistent, Pick A.J. Green

Wednesday August 2nd, 2017

Offensive line play is the secret sauce in fantasy football. This year, the Bengals’ offensive line promises to be like that wretched brown sauce people in the U.K. and Ireland put on their sandwiches and fries. (Seriously, have you ever tried that stuff? I get the dry-heaves just thinking about it.)

The Bengals lost their two best offensive linemen, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, to free agency over the winter. Pro Football Focus graded Whitworth as the second-best tackle in the league last season and Zeitler as the seventh-best guard. Anticipating that Whitworth and Zeitler might walk when their contracts expired, Cincinnati spent its first two picks of the 2015 draft on offensive linemen, taking Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round and Jake Fisher in the second. But Ogbuehi has been a human turnstile whenever the Bengals have played him, and Fisher hasn’t been much better. Ogbuehi is projected to start at left tackle, Fisher at right tackle. The interior of the Bengals’ line looks to be average at best. This unit could be a major headache for the team and for fantasy owners who invest in Cincinnati skill players.

Running Backs

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Joe Mixon RB15 RB15 Hold your nose
Jeremy Hill RB47 RB61 No-o-o-o-o
Giovani Bernard RB64 RB56 He’s palatable

Some people believe that Joe Mixon is the best rookie running back in this class—better than Leonard Fournette, better than Christian McCaffrey, both of whom were top-10 draft picks. Of course, neither Fournette nor McCaffrey was caught by a security camera punching a woman and fracturing four bones in her face, as Mixon was in 2014, hence Mixon’s second-round availability. The Bengals have an extensive history of whistling past the graveyard when it comes to drafting players with character concerns. Perhaps they were whistling Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” in their war room when they brought Mixon aboard.

Setting character aside (as the Bengals did), Mixon blends power, speed and pass-catching ability. At 6-1 and 226 pounds, he has prototypical feature-back size. Despite sharing a backfield with Samaje Perine, a fine back in his own right, Mixon had 1,109 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns as a freshman at Oklahoma, then 1,812 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry and a mind-boggling 13.8 yards per catch during his two years with the Sooners.

It’s widely assumed that Mixon will lead the Bengals in carries this year, as evidenced by his Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of RB15. That’s probably a safe assumption, I don’t mind Mixon’s ADP relative to his position, but he’s typically coming off the board in the middle of the third round, and at that point I’d rather take a player at another position than roll the dice on a rookie running back who’ll be operating behind a dreadful offensive line.

The Bengals drafted Mixon with the intent to repeal and replace Jeremy Hill as a starter. Hill has averaged 10 touchdowns during his three seasons in Cincinnati, but after averaging 5.1 yards per carry and finishing RB10 as a rookie, he’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry in the two years since. Hill is a plodder whose straightforward running style doesn’t figure to pair well with bad blocking. Considering the inevitable reduction in carries, he’s not appealing at his RB47 cost.

Passing-down back Giovani Bernard averaged 49.3 receptions and 1,147 yards from scrimmage over his first three seasons and was on a similar pace last year before tearing his ACL in November. With a Hill-Bernard pairing, there was room for both players to be useful fantasy assets, either one capable of holding down an RB2 or flex spot without putting their fantasy owners behind the curve. The addition of Mixon does more damage to Hill’s fantasy value than to Bernard’s, but Gio’s value won’t escape unscathed. Hill is one-dimensional. Mixon is multi-dimensional, and his pass-catching ability will probably put at least a small dent in Gio’s snap counts. Still, with Bernard a full participant in training camp despite the knee injury last fall, I like the idea of spending a late-round pick on him in average-sized leagues.

Quarterbacks

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Andy Dalton QB18 QB17 Pray for him

Your take on Andy Dalton’s 2017 outlook depends on whether you see a glass half-full or a glass half-full of brown sauce. Dealing with multi-week injuries to Bernard, A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, Dalton threw just 18 touchdown passes last season and had a career-worst TD percentage of 3.2%. Dalton’s TD count should be higher this year now that all hands are on deck. The question is how deleterious a tackle tandem of Ogbuehi and Fisher will be to Dalton’s production, not to mention his physical well-being. Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus (@ScottBarrettDFB) recently noted that Dalton had a passer rating of 57.1 when pressured last year—the seventh-worst rating among the 30 quarterbacks who threw 300 or more passes. Some of the sharpest minds in the fantasy intelligentsia believe that Dalton is one of this year’s best mid-range QB values. I think he’s reasonably valued at his ADP of QB18, but due to that O-line, I’m not as enthusiastic about Dalton as others are.

Wide Receivers

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
A.J. Green WR5 WR5 Consider late in 1st
John Ross WR56 WR62 Pass
Breshad Perriman WR62 WR57 Reasonable flyer

From A.J. Green’s rookie year in 2011 through 2015, he finished WR14, WR4, WR4, WR23 (missed three games) and WR8 in fantasy scoring. He was leading all receivers in PPR points per game last year before tearing his hamstring in Week 11. Green is consistency personified and one of the NFL’s true alpha receivers. He’s a clear top-five fantasy option at the position. Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones are the consensus top three. Green and Mike Evans are both worthy candidates for the WR4 spot. I currently have Evans ranked above Green, mainly because Green presumably has already reached his zenith and Evans still has room for growth, but I think it’s close to a coin toss between the two.

The Bengals’ selection of John Ross with the ninth overall pick in this year’s draft was curious. The team already has an ace wide receiver and entered the draft with a screaming need for offensive line help, yet Cincinnati spent a top-10 pick on a receiver who set a Combine record with a 4.22-second 40 time but had a torn ACL in one knee, had microfracture surgery on the other knee, and had offseason shoulder surgery. In the Bengals’ defense, Ross is no mere sequel to Phillip Dorsett, who snuck into the first round of the 2015 on the jet stream of a blazing 40 time and has disappointed ever since. Ross can actually play. But how many targets can he expect to see in a passing attack featuring Green and Eifert? Even 80 targets—a modest five per game—would seem to be a stretch. Ross has value to the Cincinnati offense as a lid lifter whom safeties must honor, but his ADP of WR56 seems too rich.

Tyler Boyd had 54 catches and played 68% of the Bengals’ offense snaps as a rookie last season. His snap count could ebb with the addition of Ross and better health for Green, but Boyd should still get a fair amount of work as a slot man in three- or four-receiver sets. Still, barring injury, his fantasy value is minimal. Ditto for veteran Brandon LaFell, who quietly compiled 64 catches for 862 yards and six touchdowns last year but is destined to be cast out of the starting lineup once Ross finds his NFL sea legs.

Tight Ends

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Tyler Eifert TE6 TE7 Fade

Since being drafted in 2013, Tyler Eifert has missed 42.2% of Cincinnati’s regular-season games due to injury. He dislocated his elbow in the 2014 opener and was sidelined for the rest of the season. He missed eight games last year—six while recovering from an ankle injury sustained in the previous season’s Pro Bowl, two because of a late-season back injury. Eifert has also had two neck injuries and a concussion. But let’s say the Bengals’ team blacksmiths forge Eifert a sturdy suit of armor and he plays all 16 games this year. Throwing out Eifert’s rookie year (because nearly all rookie TEs struggle) and his one game in 2014, Eifert has averaged 48.0 receiving yards a game over the last two seasons, which works out to 768.7 yards over a full season. Not bad, but not great. Eifert has been an extraordinarily TD-dependent fantasy performer, with 18 touchdowns in 21 games over the last two years. Your assessment of Eifert’s value depends on whether you think that Gronkonian TD rate is legit or fluky. I don’t think it’s a complete hoax, but I’m still fading Eifert at his early-seventh-round ADP of TE6.

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