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Three's A Crowd? Examining Cincinnati's WR Room

The Cincinnati Bengals have one of the most talented receiving cores in the NFL. Tee Higgins had an excellent rookie year, looking like a potential alpha WR1. Tyler Boyd continues to be one of the more dependable slot receivers in the league. This was already a strong duo, but the Bengals made it elite with their choice in this year's draft.

Despite needing help on the offensive line, the team selected Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall. Chase is considered to be an exceptional WR prospect who likely would have been the first WR off the board even in the stacked class of 2020. He has the highest upside of this Bengals' trio.

The question now becomes: is there enough volume to support the fantasy values of each of these wide receivers? This situation mirrors the one in Dallas, when the Cowboys added CeeDee Lamb to a strong group that already featured Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. In this article, we'll try to navigate this receiving core and project how the target share might look in 2021.

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Overview

Player Age Draft Capital Measurables
Ja'Marr Chase"}">Ja'Marr Chase 21 1st round, 5th overall 6'0, 208-lbs
Tee Higgins 22 2nd round, 33rd overall 6'4, 216-lbs
Tyler Boyd 26 2nd round, 56th overall 6'2, 203-lbs

Chase and Higgins are premium dynasty assets as young, stud wide receivers, but let's not forget that Boyd is still only entering his age-27 season. This is a player with 2nd-round draft capital who is talented in his own right and will absolutely command targets in this offense. Dynasty players tend to overvalue younger players, but make sure that you don't overlook Boyd in your projections for this team's target share in 2021. While Chase and Higgins are preferred, we need to account for Boyd and not become too enamored with the shiny new toys here. It's important to acknowledge this before moving forward with our 2021 projection.

 

2020 Target Share

Let's take a look at the Bengals' target share, wide receiver alignment, and overall production for wide receivers from Weeks 1-11, while Joe Burrow was under center.

Player TGT TGT% Air Yards AY% RZ TGT RZ TGT% aDOT Slot% PPR PPG
Tee Higgins 71 17.62% 928 27.03% 7 13.46% 13.1 51.05% 13.1 (WR37)
Tyler Boyd 87 21.59% 726 21.15% 11 21.15% 8.3 82.66% 16.2 (WR14)
A.J. Green"}">A.J. Green 77 19.11% 1044 30.41% 5 9.62% 13.6 28.81% 7.7 (WR85)

Green had a significant target share on this team, which tends to be overlooked because of his ineffectiveness - he caught 35 of those 77 targets (45.4% catch rate) for 357 yards and one touchdown. Green is now in Arizona, so those are 7.7 targets per game that are now available for Chase. We can project Chase to be much more efficient, making it likely that he eclipses Green's output in ten games. Chase will jump right into the Green role.

Boyd will retain his role as the low average depth of target (aDOT) slot receiver, but it's likely that his red-zone target share will decrease with the addition of Chase. Chase is an explosive receiver who can make big plays after the catch as well as contested catches in the red zone. It's likely that the red-zone targets will be more evenly distributed in 2020.

Higgins got better as the season went along, putting up rare production for a 21-year old wide receiver. Higgins joins Justin JeffersonAmari CooperMike EvansKeenan AllenSammy WatkinsCeeDee Lamb, and JuJu Smith-Schuster as the only 21-year old wide receivers to put up 900+ yards as rookies since 2000. That's some pretty elite company. We could be looking at a special player here.

Burrow averaged 40.4 pass attempts per game, which is only 0.1 fewer than league-leader Ben Roethlisberger (40.5). This is a pass-heavy offense that could have enough targets to go around for each of these three receivers. Each of these wide receivers has the chance to finish in the top-30 this season. There's only one problem.

 

Joe Burrow's Recovery

Joe Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in Week 11 against the Washington Football Team. This injury happened on November 23rd, which would give Burrow a 10-month recovery. This is an injury that typically takes six-to-nine months to heal and when you add in rehab time, 10 months is really not a long time. It's likely that we see some struggles from Burrow as he adjusts to playing on his surgically-repaired knee.

Let's take a look at how other quarterbacks have responded from a torn ACL in recent years, focusing on Deshaun WatsonCarson Wentzand Robert Griffin III.

Player pre-torn ACL Fantasy PPG post- torn ACL Fantasy PPG Length of Recovery
Deshaun Watson 24.12 (QB1) 20.73 (QB4) 11 months
Carson Wentz 21.83 (QB2) 17.51 (QB18) 9 months
Robert Griffin III 21.32 (QB3) 16.38 (QB16) 8 months

Watson represents a success story for quarterbacks coming off a torn ACL, as he was still able to throw for 4,165 yards (8.2 Y/A) with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, as well as 551 rushing yards and five touchdowns. However, it was a different story for Wentz and Griffin.

Wentz's touchdown output decreased from 33 to 21 in his post-torn ACL season. The recovery clearly affected his mobility, as his rushing yards dropped from 299 (4.7 Y/A) to 93 (2.7 Y/A). This made him less effective at completing those off-script big plays that he was renowned for in his breakout 2017 season.

Griffin was never able to get back to his dominant rookie form after this injury. In 2013, his yards per attempt fell from 8.1 to 7.0 and his rushing yards decreased from 815 to 489. He threw only 16 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in his first season coming off the injury.

 

2021 Outlook

The recovery from a torn ACL will likely affect Burrow in volume and efficiency. It's unlikely that we see Burrow attempt 40.3 passes per game this season. The Bengals will rely on running back Joe Mixon to take on a larger role as Burrow gets back on track. This is also a team with a questionable offensive line, so we can expect coach Zac Taylor to get the ball out of Burrow's hands quickly with more short passes.

This type of approach is great news for Boyd's outlook since he has the lowest average depth of target on the team as the slot receiver. It's also good for Chase because he has the ability to take a short slant to the house. This type of style is not where Higgins wins though, as he makes more plays downfield. That's not to say that he can't thrive as a possession receiver, but this approach benefits Boyd and Chase more.

FantasyPros' consensus rankings has Higgins (WR27), Boyd (WR32), and Chase (WR42) grouped close to each other. I would consider targeting whichever of the three falls furthest in your draft. This is likely to be Boyd since he's surrounded by two flashy young stud wide receivers. While three is not normally a crowd for this offense, it might be this year due to Burrow's recovery. It's unlikely that we see any of these receivers hit their ceiling this year. I'll be looking to prioritize Joe Mixon instead.



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