From now till Thursday, September 1 — the day of the final preseason games — FantasyLabs is releasing our 2016 team previews: 32 previews in 32 days. Are you ready for some football?
Cincinnati Bengals Team Preview
At some point the Cincinnati Bengals will make it past the Wild Card round, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when this happens. For the sixth time in seven years the Bengals’ postseason dreams were shattered in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s (very good) excuse revolved around the loss of Andy Dalton, as his career year was cut short in Week 14 due to a right thumb injury.
Dalton’s emergence has breathed new life into Cincinnati, and this Bengals optimism is shared by Vegas. The Bengals’ 2016 win total of 9.5 is the highest of the Dalton era, and whispers of Cincinnati being a Super Bowl contender are sounding less and less ridiculous by the day. Whether the Bengals can take the first step and win their first playoff game since 1990 remains uncertain, plenty of Bengals will put up major fantasy points in 2016.
After four years of winning regular season play but mostly iffy fantasy and playoff performances, Dalton finally put everything together in the first 13 weeks of 2015. Career highs in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and yards per attempt as well as a career low in interception percentage highlighted Dalton’s 25-touchdown campaign. With a season-long Plus/Minus of +3.96, Dalton was the No. 11 DraftKings quarterback of 2015 on a points-per-game basis, 14 spots higher than he finished in 2014.
By all accounts, Dalton was an incredible quarterback in both real life and fantasy in 2015, but he might regress some in 2016 for a variety of reasons. For one, Dalton’s core of receivers has changed substantially. Perennial stud A.J. Green is back, but productive second and third receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are both gone. Neither of these receivers can match Green’s talent or production, but Dalton’s receivers did finish 2015 as the No. 2 group in the league in receiver efficiency, a statistic that measures the productivity and efficiency of a team’s receiver corps. Clearly the rest of the league valued Jones and Sanu. They both received substantial contracts in free agency.
Perhaps the biggest loss for Dalton is tight end Tyler Eifert. An ankle injury suffered in the Pro Bowl (can we end this charade already?) has sidelined Eifert since January. He’s likely to return at some point in 2016, but he hasn’t even hit the practice field yet. A few days ago he literally made news when he jogged for the first time since his injury. As good as Dalton was last year, the truth is that during Eifert’s injury-shortened three seasons in the league he has been a different quarterback when his tight end is off the field:
A difference of over five points per game highlights Dalton’s struggles without Eifert in the lineup, and Dalton’s most prolific red-zone target (11 touchdowns between the pair in 2015) will be sorely missed for what is likely to be at least a few games in 2016.
The good news is that if Dalton can survive his first six games with his new crew of receivers, he could be poised for a mid-year breakout. Only once from Week 7 to Week 14 does Dalton face a defense that finished higher than 24th in DraftKings points allowed to quarterbacks in 2015. The average defensive rank during this eight-week stretch is 26th. How Dalton performs in that sweet spot of the schedule will likely go a long ways in determining whether he takes a step back to his career QB2 status or if he builds on 2015 to become a weekly QB1.
Now in his second year out of Alabama, McCarron showed a lot of promise during his time replacing the injured Dalton. His fantasy numbers were forgettable (he never threw for more than 200 yards in a game), but he threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions in three regular season starts. This type of competence is still a welcome sight in a league in which Matt Cassel is still one snap away from starting a football game. McCarron (probably) won’t match Dalton’s fantasy output if forced to start, but in favorable matchups he could certainly be a medium-upside, low-priced option who doesn’t entirely destroy the DFS value of the skill-position players around him. That’s basically all you can ask of a backup quarterback.
Despite tying for the league lead with 11 rushing touchdowns, Hill had a disappointing 2015. Hill had just one less rush attempt in 2015 than 2014 but rushed for 300 fewer yards. His eight touchdowns on 13 attempts inside the 5-yard line saved him from being a complete fantasy disaster, but Hill was still one of the biggest busts of the season, finishing 35th in DraftKings points per game at the position.
For Hill to return to his top-15 form of 2014, he’ll need to get back to making people miss. The Bengals had one of the best passing offenses in the NFL in 2015, and their offensive line was a consensus top-10 unit as well. The missing piece in the Bengals’ offense was Hill himself, as his Juke Rate (which isolates a running back’s on-field elusiveness and tackle-breaking power) ranked just 59th in the NFL.
Hill has looked like his old self thus far in the 2016 preseason, posting back-to-back 16-yard performances on just three carries each. Giovani Bernard out-snapped Hill in 2015 and could do so again this year, but Hill’s touchdown upside and position as a 220-carry back in the league’s seventh-highest scoring offense is too much to ignore. Hill will need to improve his rushing efficiency to regain his RB2 status, but regardless he’ll have throughout the year some favorable matchups against bottom-eight run defenses (in 2015 DraftKings points allowed to running backs). Against the Dolphins, Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles (Weeks 4-5, 10, 13) Hill should have the opportunity to put up some points.
Technically the Bengals No. 2 running back, Bernard has been at his best in games with high Vegas totals:
A Plus/Minus of +5.76 is combined with an equally impressive 70 percent Consistency rating when the game’s closing total has fallen between 46 and 49 points. Bernard is the Bengals’ go-to back on passing downs and has averaged 49 receptions per season during his three-year career.
What keeps Bernard from being a RB1 is his lack of touchdowns. After scoring eight and seven touchdowns in his first two seasons, Bernard crossed the goal line just twice in 2015. Bernard scored on seven of his 14 carries inside the 5-yard line in 2013-2014, but in 2015 he received just three such carries, converting none of them. It also doesn’t help that he has never received more than 170 carries in a season.
It appears that the Bengals have decided that Bernard is incapable of handling a larger workload, as reports have indicated that Bernard’s role isn’t expected to change much in 2016. Bernard’s receiving role gives him a high floor, but unless Hill’s subpar production results in a reduced workload it’s likely that Bernard will continue to be a high-floor, low-ceiling back in 2016.
While extra offseason work as a wide receiver for Burkhead points to the fact that the Bengals want to get him the ball, he has never had more than four carries in a game in his three-year career, and his heightened ability as a receiver is still not enough to earn him snaps over Bernard. Burkhead is an explosive and agile athlete who possesses the best SPARQ-x score of the three backs, but unless both Hill and Bernard suffer injuries he’s unlikely to be anything more than an occasional intriguing flyer in 2016.
Courtesy of Rotoworld and Evan ‘The GOAT’ Silva: “A.J. Green’s 2016 outlook reminds me a lot of Julio Jones’ entering 2015.” This couldn’t be more true. Despite surpassing 1,000 yards in each of his first five NFL seasons, Green’s best years could still be in front of him, as he is squarely in his prime at 28 years old. The loss of Jones and Sanu, combined with the uncertain status of Eifert, makes Green the only Bengals player with whom Dalton has any sort of downfield chemistry, and Green’s 132 targets in 2015 may look minuscule compared to what 2016 could yield.
The argument could be made that defenses could especially focus on Green in 2016 due to the lack of established threats around him, but if 2015 was any indication that shouldn’t be an issue for the Bengals. Green’s 66.7 percent contested-catch rate was good for fifth in the NFL in 2015, which is unsurprising given that Green is a 6’4” specimen with elite ball skills.
Just when things couldn’t go more right for Green, his schedule couldn’t be softer in 2016. Green will face bottom-five defenses in DraftKings points allowed to wide receivers a total of eight times, most of which are in the AFC North. If Green’s 2015 divisional Plus/Minus of +9.88 is any indication, life should continue to be very scary for secondaries across the Midwest in 2016.
After recording 953 yards and seven touchdowns for New England in 2014, LaFell failed to find the end zone even once a year later. Infamous for dropping six passes in one game, ‘LaFail’ has been dealing with a torn ligament in his hand this preseason but should be ready for Week 1. But when he returns he may no longer be the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver, as rookie receiver Tyler Boyd has taken training camp by storm.
LaFell never posted more than 50 catches in a season during his four years with the Panthers, and there is a real possibility that LaFell’s 2014 season may have simply been a one-year outlier that had less to do with him and more to do with the greatness of Tom Brady. LaFell’s stone hands are complemented by a mediocre SPARQ-x score of 101.4 (36th percentile among all wide receivers). While LaFell could benefit from high volume early in the season, it’s probably only a matter of time till someone else steals a lot of his targets.
The Bengals’ 2016 second-round pick, Boyd wasn’t a receiver the Bengals originally planned to target in the draft. With the 24th pick in the first round, the Bengals had every intention of drafting Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, or Laquon Treadwell, but the bypassed the position when those three receivers were selected with picks 21-23. Still, Boyd is a pretty solid consolation prize.
In three straight seasons as the Pittsburgh Panthers No. 1 wide receiver, Boyd posted an average receiving stat line of 85 catches, 1,120 yards, and seven touchdowns. He also proved himself to be a versatile player, scoring touchdowns his freshman season as a runner and return man and finishing his college career with 63 rushes for 520 yards. Boyd has earned comparisons to Keenan Allen, and while these comparisons are backhanded compliments of sorts — Boyd is most similar to Allen in that he is athletically unimpressive — the truth is that Boyd (like Allen) is a gifted route runner.
Playing almost exclusively in the slot, Boyd’s skill set should complement Green’s big-play ability very well in the Bengals offense. With his strong preseason, Boyd may already have earned the Bengals’ No. 2 wide receiver job. Even if he hasn’t, the Bengals’ soft schedule should make Boyd something of a rookie breakout if he can secure even half of the 152 targets left behind by Sanu and Jones.
Tate has served almost exclusively as a returner during his seven-year NFL career, and his best season as a receiver came with the Patriots in 2010 when he had 24 receptions for 432 yards and three touchdowns — and don’t forget those five rushes for 62 yards! Tate is the team’s de facto No. 4 receiver because the Bengals have almost no depth behind their top receivers. Uninspiring preseason performances thus far in 2016 don’t suggest that this is going to be the year that Tate scores more than a random touchdown for the Bengals.
A poor man’s Jared Abbredaris, Erickson is an undrafted rookie who last year as a redshirt senior at Wisconsin had 1,089 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. Think of the type of receiver who could get over 1,000 yards but only three touchdowns. If you’re thinking of a small receiver who is agile but lacks straight-line speed, you’re correct.
Erickson has scored a couple of touchdowns this 2016 preseason, one of which was an unbelievable punt return touchdown against the Vikings. Erickson won’t offer any fantasy value in 2016, but with a few years in the league he maybe he could turn into a competent complementary receiver.
To recap: Eifert is attempting to jog right now. This is not good. After tearing his ACL at Notre Dame, Eifert has endured an NFL career filled with flashes of elite production and of course more injuries. He has played in only 29 of a potential 48 games through three NFL seasons.
Eifert’s 2015 finish as the 5th tight end in DraftKings points per game showed how dominant Eifert can be in the red zone (11 touchdowns on 15 targets), but predicting what 2016 has in store for him is impossible until we know when he’ll return to the field and how healthy he is. When healthy, he’s a strong DFS option.
Kroft will open the season as the Bengals No. 1 tight end after playing in all 16 games a season ago as a rookie. After scoring just five collegiate touchdowns in three years, Kroft parlayed a stellar showing at his Pro Day into a third-round selection in 2015. Kroft didn’t record a target until Week 10 of the 2015 season, but he posted an average of three receptions for 36 yards in his three games with at least three targets.
At 6’5” and 246 lbs., Kroft has the size to replicate Eifert’s red-zone presence, but a preseason sprained knee and limited work with Dalton makes Kroft a risky tight end with decent upside but a low floor to open the season. And once Eifert returns Kroft will likely return to his previous role as ‘small offensive lineman who sometimes catches the ball.’
The second-year Uzomah is basically like Kroft, except that he was selected lower in the draft, got almost no playing time last year, and is a freak athlete. A 6’5” and 264 lbs. specimen, Uzomah didn’t record even 500 receiving yards in his four years at Auburn, but at least he dominated his pro day, running a 4.63-second 40-yard dash. If he somehow starts getting a lot of snaps, maybe he could transform his athleticism into production. Till that happens, remember that he’s a guy with four career receiving yards.
In addition having a nickname (‘The Red Rocket’) that has never really stuck, Dalton has had something of a roller-coaster career. The Bengals are talented at every position (their lack of receiving depth withstanding) and are good enough to control their own destiny. The question is whether they will produce the fantasy seasons we know they’re capable of along the way?