Buying The Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Joe Burrow (2021 Fantasy Football)
The fantasy industry has gotten a lot sharper over the years, but I still think we sometimes miss some obvious forms of analysis. For example, I’ve long thought that individual player analysis has become a bit oversaturated at the expense of team-level projections.
We want to target good offenses in fantasy football. That’s obvious, and it’s why so many Chiefs players are early-round selections come draft day. Taking Chiefs players is a #good strategy, but the opportunity cost is high, which lowers the potential for profit. But what if there’s an offense that we can target later in drafts — one which we can reasonably project for a fantasy-friendly environment?
That is something gamers should be interested in. Remember, one of the biggest edges we can gain over our opponents is drafting players (teams) who wildly outperform their ADPs. To put it another way – we want outliers. Heading into the 2021 fantasy football season, I’ve identified the Cincinnati Bengals as our team to attack.
Let’s dive in, and remember to feel free to reach out on Twitter (@toomuchtuma) with questions anytime.
Joe Burrow‘s rookie season featured a lot of promising developments, but his midseason ACL tear wound up overshadowing some of those trends. As highlighted below, Cincinnati’s offense was completely different with and without the Heisman trophy winner.
Had Burrow played the entire season we might not be getting so many Bengals at a discount this summer (more on that below). Therefore, we can view this as a possible market inefficiency. None of Cincinnati's offensive players wound up "popping" in 2020, especially the pass catchers.
But look at the environment when Burrow played! That is what we call a fantasy-friendly offense. With Zac Taylor returning as head coach there's little reason to think his philosophy will change now that his franchise QB is healthy again.
A Narrow Target Distribution
The other reason that Cincinnati's receivers don't sport higher ADPs is because we don't know how the target distribution will shake out. There isn't a clear-cut No. 1 wideout heading into the season. Barring injury, that likely means none of the Bengals' trio will produce a top-five campaign. That's okay, because the available targets should largely go to Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.
The combined target share for Higgins, Boyd, and A.J. Green last year was 56.9%, which is a number that should grow in '21. We know Taylor doesn't feature a tight end and we also know that he wants to play fast. This helps alleviate some of the "competition" concerns. Take another look at the chart above. The Bengals ranked first in pass rate and eighth in situation-neutral pace. I repeat -- this is a fantasy friendly offense, and it's more than capable of supporting three wideouts.
(I'd also like to point out that should an injury to one of the receivers occur, that it would dramatically increase the target share for the remaining two healthy options, thus creating some sneaky upside for players in concentrated offenses).
Efficient Quarterback Play
You probably don't need me to sell you on Burrow, but just in case there was any doubt about his abilities I felt obligated to mention some of his 2020 statistics. The rookie ranked 19th out of 42 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' passing grade, but context is needed here. It's no secret that Burrow was under siege for most of the year due to a leaky offensive line. He performed much better in a clean pocket and on intermediate throws, which are more stable indicators of true talent than the overall passing grade. In 2020 Burrow ranked fifth by this metric.
I'll also note that his receiver corps will be improved this fall. One problem was that A.J. Green, who finished 101st out of 112 qualifiers in yards per route run, saw over 100 targets. He has since been replaced by Chase. Buying into one of the best college QB prospects ever, who achieved moderate success as a rookie, feels like a good bet to make.
As excited as we are about Chase, the elephant in the room is that the team passed on an uber-talented OL prospect in Penei Sewell to draft him. The line was a concern in 2020, ranking 27th in PFF's pass blocking grade, and it's hard to project the unit to be much better in 2021. Sure, they took Jackson Carman in Round 2, but the offensive line still shouldn't be viewed as a strength for Cincinnati. Fantasy football is a volume driven game, though, and a bad defense combined with Taylor's fast pace has me overlooking these OL concerns for now.
The other worry is the training camp struggles. Over the weekend Burrow called them "a mental thing" as he works to overcome last year's knee injury. Additionally, Chase reportedly hasn't been getting much separation, which has led to some backlash from fantasy analysts regarding his ADP. I'll admit that neither of these reports are things I want to hear, but they're keeping the acquisition cost in check. Imagine if reports were glowing? We might get priced out of Bengals stacks. Fantasy football is a price sensitive game, which leads me to...
We'll close by rehashing the reason we're interested in Cincinnati in the first place -- the opportunity cost associated with this offense. Sharp fantasy managers are price sensitive, which means that we don't target players regardless of cost. A great example right now is CeeDee Lamb, a fourth round pick for most of the offseason whose ADP has recently inched closer to the start of Round 3. If he's a top-24 player by September than his appeal won't be as strong. Let's take a look at Cincinnati ADPs from the last two weeks over at NFFC:
I added Mixon to the stack since he's a desirable second-round target given his expected three-down role. But the point here is that the Chase/Higgins can be had at the 4/5 turn with Boyd available in the seventh round. I'll also note that NFFC drafters are typically quite savvy and that wide receivers get pushed up the board. I'd expect Chase, Higgins, and Boyd to come cheaper in your standard home league.
In conclusion, the Bengals are an offense who should play fast and run a lot of plays with a narrow target tree. There are concerns, but those are baked into the opportunity cost associated with this team. If everything clicks we could be looking at a situation similar to the Dallas Cowboys, whose players are much more expensive to acquire. The Bengals aren't a lock to hit for fantasy purposes, but the data and logical reasoning support making a bet on them.
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