Fantasy Football Target Practice: The 2021 Cincinnati Bengals

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Continuing our Target Practice series, this is the time of the year to combine all of our thoughts and process into actionable information for drafting. The goal is to break down teams with curious pass-catching situations and give the floor and ceiling argument for each player.

For the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals, there are a number of different angles we need to come at this from. I wanted to dive into their vacated targets & somewhat rare target share distribution first before projecting how we think this offense will function.

Vacated Targets & Target Share Problems

One of the first places to begin projecting an offense is by examining opportunity and pace. How much of the passing pie is available, how often does this team throw and how do we split up those targets? I published an article a couple of years ago highlighting a trend between Vacated Targets & the RB Position in Fantasy Football. Another question that often comes up when evaluating multiple pass catchers is Do Offenses Have ‘Too Many Mouths to Feed‘? If you want a deeper dive into those subjects, feel free to give them a read before going any further.

First off, the offense in Cincinnati was ummm…. inefficient in 2020. You can blame the offensive line, a rookie QB, dusted veterans (ahem A.J. Green), the play-calling by offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, or maybe you don’t believe in head coach Zac Taylor, whose win percentage is hugging the  Mendoza-line at .203 through two seasons. I did an entire thread on Joe Burrow before the NFL Draft hinting that he was just as responsible for the issues as the line:

But beyond looking at the system a rookie Joe Burrow found himself in, there is a new context for the Bengals in 2021. Here are the vacated targets highlighted by long-time franchise mainstays A.J. Green & Giovani Bernard.

2020 Player Vacated Targets
A.J. Green 104
Giovani Bernard 59
Alex Erickson 17
John Ross 7

There are 187 targets gone from last year but that isn’t necessarily something we can copy and paste into the roles for 2021. First off, Joe Mixon was off the field for the entire 2nd half. Joe Burrow went down against Washington and the targets were left to be supplied by the likes of Ryan Finley and Brandon Allen. My good friend and DFS Podcast co-host Matthew Betz recently went into detail about Burrow’s recovery and how to approach him in fantasy drafts.

Beyond what left this offense, what did occur was something we don’t see a ton in the NFL: three WRs all over a 15 percent target share. Over the last four years, here are the offenses that skewed towards hyper-targeting three WRs.

2017 MIA Jarvis Landry Kenny Stills DeVante Parker
26.9% 17.5% 16.0%
2017 GB Davante Adams Randall Cobb Jordy Nelson
20.9% 16.4% 15.7%
2018 ATL Julio Jones Mohamed Sanu Calvin Ridley
28.1% 15.6% 15.2%
2018 TB Mike Evans Adam Humphries Chris Godwin
22.3% 17.0% 15.3%
2018 BAL Michael Crabtree John Brown Willie Snead
18.6% 18.0% 17.6%
2019 JAC D.J. Chark Jr. Dede Westbrook Chris Conley
21.0% 17.9% 16.0%
2020 CAR Robby Anderson D.J. Moore Curtis Samuel
25.8% 22.4% 18.4%
2020 CIN Tyler Boyd Tee Higgins A.J. Green
19.4% 19.1% 18.4%

In other words, it’s rare to see three WRs with elevated enough target shares for all three to be started on a weekly basis for fantasy. However, you could also look at this list and say that other than the alphas getting 23+ percent of the target shares, the other WRs never truly reached a difference-making ceiling. The Panthers from 2020 were a perfect example of three guys who all went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage but all topped out in the low 20s for fantasy finish.

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Regardless, this team seems to be a darling for fantasy football twitter in 2021 as the pass-catching options of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd are sought after. As we work through each position, keep in mind that in order for the Bengals to have three meaningful WRs from a target share perspective, the other positions will have to suffer which is why the Bengal TE is noticeably not a thing.

Dividing Out the Passing Pie

Joe Mixon, RB
40 targets / Ceiling: 80 targets

If you ask the casual fantasy manager what they think of Mixon, they likely will bemoan the fact the dude was out for the entire second half of the 2020 season. While he’s had two top-15 seasons, we’ve yet to see a truly elite season from Mixon who tantalizes us with his 3-down skill set. It is in his range of outcomes to be a top-5 RB which isn’t something every 2nd round pick could say. Beyond health and the play of the offensive line, Mixon as a pass-catcher can hit upwards of 80 targets if Joe Burrow checks it down to him 4-5 times a game. It is worth noting that even in a small sample size, Burrow and Mixon carried some major negative correlation last year (-0.61) in terms of their spike game production. In other words, in DFS formats, when Burrow had a big game, Mixon usually wasn’t the beneficiary.

Ja’Marr Chase, WR
Floor: 95 targets/ Ceiling: 140 targets

I did a full Rookie Profile overview of Chase complete with film analysis and his range of outcomes earlier in the offseason. I deemed him more a “good to very good” prospect instead of the “great” WR that many had crowned him as in the pre-draft evaluation. I side a bit more with Jason in having some pause of his Year One production. Not that he can’t come out guns blazing but with two other weapons alongside him, it’s hard imagining him having an outlier season. He’s essentially being asked to be Justin Jefferson out of the gate (his college teammate) with his current ADP. The targets also might not be of the highest quality despite the “chemistry” with Burrow. Despite averaging a robust 40.4 passing attempt per game, Burrow’s deep ball was underwhelming in 2020. He had the 3rd lowest adjusted completion percentage on deep passes in NFL. Chase can lean on elite efficiency but in terms of target volume, he likely will sit in the 115-125 range in Year One.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Tee Higgins, WR
Floor: 110 targets / Ceiling: 130 targets

You’d think with the addition of Ja’Marr Chase that the hype train conducted by Higgins truthers was going to slow down. But it’s one of the stranger occurrences in fantasy football ADP where Higgins’ ADP in Underdog BestBall drafts is now 47th overall. In other words, he’s a 4th round pick going only a couple of spots behind Chase. Higgins is another guy who was overshadowed by Justin Jefferson‘s greatness and yet he was everything the Bengals could’ve wanted from their second-round draft pick. Higgins has the ability to win on 50/50 balls and be an end-zone difference-maker. Boyd led the team with 16 red-zone targets but only four of those were standing in the end-zone, the real gold for fantasy. Higgins had seven such targets and will look to build off of that in 2021.

Tyler Boyd, WR
Floor: 105 targets / Ceiling: 135 targets

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Over the last three seasons, Boyd has averaged 122 targets and seems like such a safe option currently in the 8th round. All three Ballers have him comfortably above 125 targets and with the added 17th game, that seems well within reach. His ceiling feels like the most capped of the three WRs due to athletic limitations as a predominantly slot receiver. If you are in a full PPR league, consider Boyd as your team’s WR3/4 knowing you can get a weekly start out of him.

Drew Sample/C.J. Uzomah, TE
Floor: 35 targets / Ceiling: 60 targets

I’m grouping these two bozos together because the TE position for fantasy has been irrelevant since Tyler Eifert. Uzomah had some backers after he was re-signed but he promptly was hurt early in Week 2. From then on, it was the Drew Sample show and that was not a program you wanted to tune into in 2020. He went full-on stool Sample and was basically worthless from a fantasy perspective offering empty-calorie targets. The target share is laughable and not one you should spend any time thinking about for fantasy.


Joe Mixon says:

Let’s go Mixon!

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