Now that the NFL Combine is in the books, teams now turn their attention to free agency. This is now the time for organizations to decide which pieces they would like to retain for the future or whether the cap dollars and other resources should be allocated elsewhere. Some teams do a great job fragmenting individual player contracts to expire at the most opportune times for sustainable success. One team in particular facing some difficult decisions come March 9th are the Cincinnati Bengals. When looking at the Bengals situation on offense, you immediately notice the depth of the wide receiver position as anything but concrete heading into 2016. Marvin Jones (25), Brandon Tate (28) and Mohamed Sanu (26) and are all set to hit the market when free agency opens on March 9th, leaving A.J. Green as the only receiver with any kind of production and experience under contract for 2016.
Bengals receivers under contract in 2016 not named A.J. Green:
James Wright (24) – 5 receptions
Mario Alford (23) – 1 reception
Michael Bennett (24) – 0 receptions
Jake Kumerow (24) – 0 receptions
Will the Bengals re-sign one of either Sanu or Jones? Cincinnati sits pretty with the 10th most available cap space at a little over $37.5 million but have a number of areas to address, most notably the secondary (Pacman Jones, Leon Hall, Reggie Nelson, George Iloka all FAs). Sanu will come as the cheaper of the two, but can he fill the void left by someone like Jones? Doubtful. It’s very likely we could see both leave to a WR needy team, leaving one of the inexperienced WRs above an opportunity to step up, an outside FA to slide in, or WR from the draft to compete for time. Jones has noted “…no hometown discount, definitely not…”. Sounds to me like he’s anxious to test the FA waters. If Jones and Sanu part ways with the Bengals organization, that leaves the question, who benefits most from their absence?
As you can see, 31% of the total team targets (153) went to the duo of Sanu/Jones. That’s a sizable chunk of offense that needs to be filled. Of the available FA WRs on the market that could draw interest from the Bengals, are any of them a candidate to be relied on for a similar workload to Jones? The pool of players may grow with any additional cuts prior to the opening of free agency, but as of now, only a small list of guys realistically fit the bill for being able to handle a piece of the pie that’ll be left by Jones and Sanu. Reuben Randle, still only 24, is an interesting guy despite his struggles in breaking out. Anquan Boldin is a household name and possession receiver that could be useful as a #2 behind A.J. Green, but at 35 years old, wouldn’t exactly get the fan base excited. Other options include: Jermaine Kearse (26), Rishard Matthews (26), Brian Quick (26), among others. The last option is to let Sanu and Jones walk and address the wide receiver position in the draft. If that ends up being the case I would not be surprised at all to see Cincy select a wide receiver in the first three rounds of the draft.
One of the more intriguing stories of the 2015 season was the emergence of the Cincinnati Bengals offense, specifically the duo of Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert. Dalton began 2015 by throwing down QB1 numbers over the first six weeks, while Eifert finished 1st in TDs at the TE position (13), only appearing in 13 games after suffering an extended late-season absence due to concussion. It was a taste of the connection that may be seen in the years to come, with Dalton currently under contract through 2020, and Eifert likely to receive an extension this offseason.
The tight end position has always been a position of weakness in fantasy football. Being able to hit on a late round selection at tight end can save you precious early-to-mid-round draft capital. In 2015, many took a gamble on Tyler Eifert in the later rounds of fantasy drafts, which ended up paying huge dividends, as he finished TE6 overall while going in the 10th round or later in most redraft leagues. Not too shabby for a guy who finished 15th in targets per game at the position (5.7 p/g). One area of concern for Tyler Eifert going forward is whether or not he can convert his red zone targets into TDs at even close to the same rate that he did in 2015. Of the 35 players who scored five or more red zone TDs, Eifert finished 1st in catch % at a whopping 80% (12/15 & 11 for TD). With a possible TD regression, he’ll need to command a much larger share of targets. I don’t care that he missed three games, it definitely raises some red flags that he was out-targeted by guys like Owen Daniels, Coby Fleener, and Jacob Tamme. It will be interesting to see how high Eifert goes in redraft leagues.
The largest benefactor of the potential FA purge of Bengals WRs is obviously A.J. Green. It’s too early to tell how much the Bengals will rely on Green, but once free agency begins we’ll get a much clearer picture of his 2016 outlook. In the two years preceding Hue Jackson’s tenure as offensive coordinator Green finished 5th and 3rd in targets (164/178). Green is a surefire top 10 WR when healthy. If receiving nearly a third of the team target share, he can push top five as was witnessed in 2012-’13.
A.J. Green target share by year:
2011: 22% / WR14
2012: 30.9% / WR4
2013: 30.8% / WR5
2014: 23.7% / WR23
2015: 26.7% / WR8
With Hue Jackson now off to Cleveland, long-time QB coach Ken Zampese steps in as the new offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. During the two seasons with Hue as OC the Bengals averaged 31.7 (2014) and 32.1 (2015) pass attempts per game, putting them in the bottom 10 league-wide.
Rush/Pass + PPG by year:
2011: 43.9%/56.1% – 20.8
2012: 41.9%/58.1% – 23.8
2013: 43%/57% – 25.9
2014: 47.6%/52.4% – 22.1
2015: 45.8%/54.2% – 25.6
The additions of Giovani Bernard in 2013 and Jeremy Hill in 2014 have aided the transformation to a more balanced offense, allowing bad Andy fewer opportunities to take over.
A combination of improved defense, Andy Dalton’s maturation, Tyler Eifert’s emergence, and general health on offense surely played a role, but I would look for the Bengals to continue offensive success even with Hue going inter-divisional.