The Cincinnati Bengals had a relatively disheartening 2016 campaign, failing to make the playoffs for the first time in five years while recording their first losing season since Andy Dalton took over as the team’s starting QB. The off-season didn’t do much to quell fan’s anxiety, as the organization’s moves – or lack thereof – made it seem as if the team had regressed from their already disappointing season.
The 2017 NFL Draft, however, appeared to be a Godsend for as the team added some much needed speed on both sides of the ball, breathing new life into the lungs of the deflated Bengals Nation. Could any of these draft selections could wind up making a splash for your fantasy team this year? Let’s find out.
John Ross, WR, Washington
In today’s NFL, most top ten picks are expected to step in and contribute right away and Ross certainly has the ability to do just that. The talent is certainly there, as evidenced by the fastest 40 in recorded NFL combine history. Ross is also a sneakily effective red zone weapon and is much more polished as a receiver than your average track star moonlighting as an NFL receiver (see Darius Heyward-Bey). The issue for Ross heading into the 2017 season is whether or not he’ll see consistent targets, as he joins what has quickly become a crowded receiving corps in Cincinnati. Ross will have to beat out Brandon LaFell opposite of AJ Green, who just re-upped for 2 years and $9 million and appears to be firmly entrenched as the team’s WR2. In addition, last year’s second round selection, Tyler Boyd, showed promise as a rookie and will likely get the nod in the slot. Even if Ross is able to garner a starting spot, he’ll still be third in the receiving hierarchy behind AJ Green and the oft-injured Tyler Eifert. That being said, Ross is a top ten pick and a dynamic playmaker at that, so I think Cincinnati’s coaching staff will make it an effort to get Ross involved in the offense, probably not as a starter initially because Marvin Lewis is notoriously stingy with rookies, but more so in specific packages designed to get Ross down the field or with the ball in space.
Chew on this: The Bengals last first round WR pick other than AJ Green was Peter Warrick, who was also asked to assume WR2 duties and possessed a similar skill set to Ross, finished his rookie campaign with a 51-592-4 line. In addition, the Bengals de-facto WR2 has averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 catches for 800 yards or so the past two seasons. If Ross is able to win a starting role (or at the very least garner WR2 targets) it’s a good bet that he’ll land somewhere within this range, meaning he should be able to rival Sterling Shepard’s 2017 (65-683-8), which I think is a good fantasy barometer for Ross in his first go around the league. He’ll have his days, but much like Shepard, it’ll be tough to peg down which weeks he explodes and which weeks he disappears, as is the case with most rookies. Ross’ ceiling is fairly high, but he’ll have to battle injuries and the depth chart before we get a glimpse of his true long term value. Right now, I’d say Ross is worthy of a mid-round selection with upside after you’ve solidified your starting WR positions.
Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
As of right now, the only thing more difficult than figuring out whether or not it’s morally acceptable to root for Joe Mixon as a Bengals fan is figuring out what exactly Mixon’s workload and role in the offense will look like this year. Mixon now shares a backfield with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who between them share 5 seasons of 1,000 total yards while Hill leads the NFL in rushing TD’s since entering the league with 29. On paper, that isn’t an ideal scenario for a rookie RB, but considering the fact that Hill has regressed significantly since his rookie campaign and Bernard may very well begin the season on the PUP list, it would appear that the opportunities will be there for Mixon. I see the Bengals backfield situation playing out one of three ways:
- Bernard does indeed start the season on PUP and Mixon would more or less absorb that workload in Bernard’s absence, putting him on pace for 150-200 touches at minimum.
- Mixon’s talent shines through and he beats out everyone for the starting gig. The Bengals have grown increasingly frustrated with Hill, so much so that the trade rumors have been swirling. Considering the decline in production and impending free agency, it’s very possible that Hill is not included in the Bengals 2017 plans. In this case, Mixon would still share time with Bernard in his return, but would likely receive the majority of touches.
- The Bengals coaching staff is unable how to properly utilize all three backs and they end up splitting carries three ways. In this case, Mixon would likely be stuck in the middle as a rookie.
Obviously prospective fantasy owners would prefer the first two scenarios, but regardless of how things play out, Mixon should still have a significant amount of fantasy value in one capacity or another. The bottom line is that you don’t draft a guy with as much baggage as Mixon to have him ride the bench. Marvin Lewis and company clearly feel that Mixon’s talent outweighs any negative repercussions and they will make a significant effort to work him into the offense as a primary ball carrier, pass catcher out of the backfield, wide receiver, etc.
Conservatively, I see Mixon’s rookie numbers rivaling Terrence West’s 2016, i.e. 227 touches, 1,010 yards, 6 TD’s. However, if Mixon is able to get the starting nod and play 3 downs in most games, I think the possibility is there for a Todd Gurley/Zeke Elliot type rookie season. Right now it’s just too difficult to figure out where he’ll fall in that spectrum. The RB battle will be imperative to watch during training camp as that will significantly impact Mixon’s draft status.