The Cincinnati Bengals were really bad last year. That’s not shocking to hear, after all, they picked #1 overall, adding Joe Burrow to their squad (more on that later). Still, offensive line investment should come to maturity this season, which should help the offense take a step forward for 2020. Who will benefit from this in the Cincinnati Bengals offense? Who are the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2020 sleeper, breakout, and bust?
Sleeper – Joe Burrow, Quarterback (QB18, 141 overall)
This is the easy play, calling the #1 pick in all of the land a fantasy football sleeper. Joe Burrow likes to run a little bit (think prime Alex Smith) and can make the throws that will put his receivers in a position to succeed. When you watch Joe Burrow, one trait comes to mind immediately: ease. Everything comes so easy to Burrow when he’s on the field, which means that his transition to the NFL should come much easier than, say, hyper-frenetic Justin Herbert.
The Bengals’ offensive line was terrible in 2019, almost like they had the #11 pick in the 2019 draft, a left tackle, out for the year. Oh, wait. That should improve the #28-ranked pass blocking line by PFF (and the 12th-worst per Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate), and give Burrow more time and room to work in 2020. There’s also the weaponry. While I will poo-poo Tyler Boyd’s fantasy potential in 2020 later, a wide receiver room of A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd. Tee Higgins and John Ross immediately give Burrow a better WR room than some ten-year veterans get at any point in their career.
Burrow is essentially free as a middling backup quarterback. No matter what happens this season, barring injury, Burrow should end up inside the top-fifteen fantasy football quarterbacks. The last time a rookie QB didn’t end up in the top-fifteen was 2015 when Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were the jewels of an underwhelming crop of rookie QBs.
Breakout – Joe Mixon, Running Back (RB7, 9 overall)
Sometimes, the breakout is priced in. For Joe Mixon, his 2020 breakout season is priced into his draft price. Given that he’s going as a top-ten pick, it’s hard for him to go up from there, but given his past performance, a top-ten pick is a harbinger of a breakout campaign for Mixon. And I’m buying it.
Joe Mixon played all sixteen games last season, posting 1,424 yards from scrimmage after posting 1,464 the year prior (in just 14 games). This was technically a step back, though this was likely due to a terrible run-blocking unit ahead of Mixon. Despite facing a light front just 41% of the time (#31 among running backs), and despite facing the worst game script in the NFL, Mixon ranked second in yards created, fourth in juke rate, and first in evaded tackles. He really was making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.
Mixon ran behind an offensive line with the consistency of Skyline Chili and with a quarterback carousel “keeping defenses honest” that was more akin to what Skyline Chili looks like when you’re done with it. Mixon has Mile From Scrimmage (1,7,60 yard) upside, and double-digit TD potential. It’s hard to come off as a sleeper when you’re a top-ten pick, but given that he’s going ahead of injury risks like Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott, he could end up as a top-five pick next year. Now that’s rarified air.
Bust – Tyler Boyd, Wide Receiver (WR33, 79 overall)
I like putting the bust last, lest you think that I am too high on a team going into the season. Tyler Boyd is going to be, at best, the #1 wide receiver for rookie Joe Burrow. It’s equally likely that A.J. Green plays at least eight games and splits the #1 WR duties with Boyd all season long. Tyler Boyd spent last season stretching his legs in A.J. Green’s absence last year, getting 148 targets for 1,046 yards. He posted a drastically reduced yard per target last season thanks to catching a career-low in catches. People will point to his bad quarterbacks as a reason why his catch rate dropped precipitously, but his true catch rate (on “Catchable Passes”) was #65 in the league last year.
While I like Joe Burrow as a quarterback, we have to grapple with the Rookie Quarterback Problem. Since 2010, only three wide receivers have top-24 WR seasons from first-round rookie quarterbacks. That might look exceptionally bleak… because it is. Boyd is capped on his breakout potential for 2020 and might backslide into the outright bust territory as more people get in on the third-year WR, pushing his ADP up unnecessarily.