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Fantasy Football Team Preview: Cincinnati Bengals — Breakouts, Busts and Sleepers

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) rolls out to throw during training camp practice, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, at the practice fields next to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals boast one of the most fantasy-friendly offenses in the NFL. Last season team generated the second-highest pass rate in a neutral game script (68%) with a healthy Joe Burrow under center. They've since added No. 5 overall pick Ja'Marr Chase and to a talented group of skill players. 

Burrow led the NFL in passing attempts per game (40.4) during his rookie season and ranked third in expected fantasy points per game (23.0) behind only Dak Prescott and Josh Allen. However, no team scored fewer fantasy points versus expectation (-120.2), which means one thing: Positive regression is coming. 

Any team that offers top-tier passing volume is worth heavily targeting. With a healthy Burrow leading the charge, this offense is slated to boom in 2021.


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2021 Team Preview

The Bengals defense couldn't stop anyone in 2020, and things don't look like they'll be much better this year. This offseason, Cincy lost two of its best defensive players in cornerback William Jackson III and edge defender Carl Lawson. Entering the season, the Bengals own PFF’s 31st-ranked linebacker unit, 15th-ranked secondary and 25th-ranked defensive line

Passing volume alone won’t necessarily get the job done. Burrow has to be a more efficient passer in Year 2, and his advanced metrics as a rookie paint the picture of a quarterback who showed signs of promise. 

He was excellent in Year 1 on throws up to 20 yards, ranking sixth in PFF passing grade. Per PFF’s Seth Galina, Burrow’s PFF passing grade from a clean pocket, grade on first/second down and percentage of negatively graded throws all ranked first among rookie quarterbacks since 2006. 

Those are the sticky quarterback metrics. Meanwhile, deep passing — where Burrow struggled the most in 2020 — tends to vary more year over year. 

Burrow's on-target percentage (21%) ranked second-worst in the league on 20-plus yard air throws, and these plays resulted in a 58.0 passer rating. It wasn't all Burrow's fault, as targeting A.J. Green nuked his overall numbers. With Green out of the picture and replaced with college football’s best deep-threatJa’Marr Chase, don’t be surprised to see Burrow’s deep-ball improve drastically in Year 2.

It’s been a rough start for Burrow at training camp. The Bengals quarterback described his summer struggles as “mental” more than physical that’s somewhat to be expected for a QB coming off major knee surgery just nine months ago.

Don’t overreact and fade this Bengals offense — it is essentially the AFC North’s version of the Dallas Cowboys. Fantasy drafters should be buying the dip on Bengals players after the lackluster summer reports. The latest and more under-the-radar drum beats out of camp suggest Burrow and the offense are improving.

Still, there will inevitably be growing pains early in the regular season, which is why Burrow is not a quarterback worth drafting in typical redraft formats even though he falls at No. 12 in my quarterback rankings. He’s going to struggle through the first three weeks against formidable defenses in the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Do not lose faith from a season-long perspective, and be sure to target him when he gets dropped to the waiver wire. During Weeks 4-6, Burrow draws absolute layups against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. By then, expect Burrow and company to be firing on all cylinders.

The Bengals’ 25th-ranked offensive line poses potential problems, but they have taken the requisite steps to be closer to average than bottom-five in 2021. Left tackle Jonah Williams is solid, having earned the 12th-best pass-blocking grade on true pass sets in his first NFL season after missing 2019 due to injury. The team added right tackle Riley Reiff in free agency. 

The line's weakness lies more on the interior, which has a bigger influence on the run game than passing game. The perception behind the Bengals having an offensive line that will get Burrow crushed has been blown out of proportion because of his injury last year.

If anything, the offensive line will limit the Bengals' running attack. Still, running backs who see a bell-cow level of volume are the ultimate trump card. Four running backs saw at least 300 touches in 2020, and they all finished as top-eight fantasy running backs. Joe Mixon would have been the fifth back on the list had he stayed healthy.

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