By Alex Kurpeski
We are now nearly a month removed from the 2020 NFL Draft and the honeymoon phase for the Cincinnati Bengals and their No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow is still going strong. Following a dominating super-senior season with the LSU Tigers, the Heisman Trophy winning passer will be trading in his yellow and purple tiger kit for a more traditional black and orange attire, with his eyes set on bringing a winning professional football culture back to Ohio. Barring any unfortunate injuries to Burrow (or a timeline where Ryan Finley beats him out for the starting gig), it’s safe to assume that Burrow will be the Bengals starting QB whenever the 2020 season kicks-off.
Taking a look at Cincinnati’s receiving core, we can see that there is a lot of talent to be found, with the only question being “who is gonna be Joe’s favorite target?”. Starting at the top we have A.J Green, the seemingly disgruntled former superstar wideout who missed all of 2019 recovering from a nasty lower leg injury. Green, whose role in the passing game would best compare to that of Ja’Marr Chase, the pseudo WR1 in LSU’s pass-happy attack, is a known commodity amongst us fantasy fanatics thanks to his top-10 finishes at the position in 2017, 2015, 2013, and 2012. Should the Bengals keep Green around amid his reported trade demands, it’s safe to project his target share in the area of around 25% — slightly higher than it was during an injury plagued 2018 season (23.5%) — while also penciling him in for the highest percentage of red zone targets (he averaged a 52% share of these in 2018) with the loss of Tyler Eifert to free agency. Should the Bengals elect to employ a higher percentage of passing plays into their gameplan with the addition of Burrow (maybe you’ve heard that he led the NCAA in virtually every passing category last year), these projected shares could fluctuate.
Behind Green we have the player who I am most excited about from this group, former Pitt standout Tyler Boyd. Boyd, a lean 6’2 slot receiver, is nearly identical (in terms of body type) to Justin Jefferson, who was on the other end of 27.61% of Burrow’s completions last season. Following a 2019 campaign that saw him set career highs in yardage (1,046) and receptions (90), it’s safe to assume that Boyd will click instantly with Burrow thanks to the former LSU quarterback’s excellence on short and intermediate throws. Even with Green’s return, Boyd (who played on 89% of offensive snaps last season) should be the most valuable (and stable) fantasy asset in this group.
In contention for the third and final receiver spot in the starting lineup we have a quartet of intriguing pass-catchers, who could not be any more different from each other if they tried. First we have speedy former top-10 pick John Ross, who looked to be coming on strong at the start of last season, averaging 16.2 PPR points per-game before suffering a knee injury that significantly stalled his momentum. Ross will likely play the role of Brandin Cooks in Zac Taylor’s offense, running routes to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Ross’s fantasy upside lies mostly in his big play potential (18.1 yards per-reception in 2019), as he likely won’t be a high volume pass-catcher like Boyd or Green given his career reception percentage of just 42.2%. Should Ross continue to consistently get open from his defender (he averaged 1.77 yards of separation per-target last season), he may very well serve as an important part of this pass-catching core.
However, should Ross fail to grasp the proverbial brass ring in year four, expect to see a lot of Auden Tate in three-receiver sets. Tate emerged as a viable playmaker in the second half of last season for the Bengals, seeing 80 total targets on the year while tallying 575 receiving yards. At 6’5 Tate is a nice understudy for Green, in case the team decides to satisfy the veteran wideout’s trade desires. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Tate’s game is his ability to convert contested catches, as he finished just inside the top-20 in this department last season, hauling in 39.3% of these targets. Like Green, Tate should see an uptick in red-zone targets with the departure of Tyler Eifert. It’s hard to imagine a world where Tate and Green, both long stride receivers with little wiggle to their route-running, are used in tandem for a majority of offensive snaps. However, Tate’s upside combined with Taylor’s trust in him could make for an intriguing stash this season.
The newest addition to Cincy’s roster, former Clemson wideout Tee Higgins may very well be the favorite to take over the WR3 role this fall, especially after the team spent the 33rd overall selection on him in this year’s draft. At 6’4, 215 lbs, Higgins is a massive target who mirrors the play-style of Green in many ways. Contested catches are Higgins’ bread-and-butter, and he should be a very effective red-zone weapon for the Bengals once he fully adjusts to the NFL game. Like Tate, it would be odd to see Higgins sharing the field with Green very much, although the team’s best option from a talent perspective would be to deploy the two together at the X and Z spots respectively. It’s unclear whether Higgins will have the understanding of the team’s playbook down well enough to beat out veterans like Tate and Ross, especially with the delays created by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Last but not least we have slot/return specialist Alex Erickson, one of the most trustworthy veteran players on this retooling Bengals squad. It’s easy to forget that Erickson, a longtime bench warmer, had one of the better stretches for a Bengals receiver in 2019, catching 27 passes for 281 yards from weeks 6-8. While Erickson eventually came crashing back down to earth, his upside as a pass-catcher was on full display during this period, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him earn some snaps as the defacto WR3 in this offense should Ross or Tate struggle at all.
HowAt this stage in the offseason, Boyd has been coming off the board before the rest of the receivers in this group, likely due to his stable contract and the momentum he has built for himself coming off back-to-back thousand yard campaigns. While Green possesses some tremendous upside as the WR1 in this Burrow-led offense, his age (32 this season), injury history (he’s played in just 28% of games since the start of 2018), and uncertain roster status has him faded in most drafts. With an average of 5.63 receptions per-game last season, Boyd should see a steady volume of looks, an appealing trait for PPR leagues. As it stands right now, Boyd and Green are currently being drafted as the WR30 and WR31 respectively, although this gap will likely grow depending on what the word from Bengals camp is regarding Burrow’s practice sessions. As for the remaining four names, they will have to fight for scraps as Burrow’s WR3 (not the worst scraps to be subsisting off of, to be fair) unless injuries or trades re-open a more stable starting role for one of them. With the disappointing tight end group (led by blocking specialist Drew Sample and replacement-level C.J Uzomah), the main source of fantasy production in the passing game from this offense should come from their receivers, as well as their backs Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard (if he makes the final roster).
As great as Burrow’s 2019 campaign was, it’s unrealistic to expect him to continue ravaging defenses in the NFL in the same manner. However, a 4,000+ yard passing season with 20-30 touchdowns is not out of the question for year one, given the incredibly dense pass-catching talent on the Bengals roster. We saw just how great an average QB like Jared Goff can look when surrounded by talent and a coaching staff that understands how to play to his strengths, so the outlook for a player like Burrow (who we believe is much more ‘transcendent’ than Goff) should be very positive, even with the Bengals’ below-average offensive line.