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Andy Behrens

Juggernaut Index No. 21: The Cincinnati Bengals

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. This is not an NFL power ranking. We're not predicting wins and losses here. Instead, we're reviewing each team's projected fantasy contributions — that's it.

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Back in 2007, when Kenny Watson(notes) led Cincinnati in rushing and Rudi Johnson(notes) was stumbling along at 2.9 yards per carry, you would have never believed that the Bengals could possibly become a dominant running team by 2010.

Why would they even attempt the transformation? They had Carson Palmer(notes) at quarterback, a player who'd averaged 28.7 TD passes over the prior three seasons. At wideout, they had Chad Ochocinco(notes) (then Johnson) and TJ Houshmandzadeh(notes), a pair of elite receivers who'd just combined to catch 205 passes for 2,583 yards. The Bengals averaged 23.8 points and 348.0 yards per game in '07, so it's not as if offensive production was really the problem.

And of course if we'd told you three years ago that Cedric Benson(notes) would be the man to eventually lead Cincinnati's dominant running game, you would have fired us on the spot. Benson was coming off a lifeless, miserable season in which he averaged 3.4 YPC and routinely hit the turf on first contact. He was the opposite of explosive. And during the subsequent offseason, he was twice arrested for operating vehicles while intoxicated, on land and at sea. Many of us would have paid good money to never again own him in fantasy.

But here we are. It's 2010, Houshmandzadeh is long gone, Palmer has been dogged by questions about his arm strength, and the Bengals' are now a Benson-dependent running team — and this approach works beautifully.

Last season, Cincinnati ranked ninth in the NFL rushing yards (128.5) and fourth in attempts (31.6) while putting the ball in the air just 29.8 times per game. Benson was decisive, bruising and occasionally elusive. He established new career highs in … well, in everything we care about: 301 carries, 1,251 yards, 6 TDs, 4.2 YPC. The Bengals' offensive line was much better than advertised, too. Benson basically delivered a vintage Rudi season — the 2004 version, not the '07 model — and the coaching staff gave him all the work he could handle. He had at least 29 carries in five of his 13 games, including a season-high 37 in the Week 7 rout of his former team.

Cincinnati's run-first approach wasn't simply a one-year gimmick, either. The Bengals finished atop the AFC North standings last season, thanks largely to their stellar ground game and outstanding defense. The formula isn't likely to change in 2010, not while it's effective.

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Benson placed 16th in the latest Yahoo! composite RB ranks, but we're a bit more pessimistic than early drafters. (Don't blame me for the rank, by the way. Not this year. Send inquiries to this man). Cedric's current Mock Draft Central ADP is 18.7. The projected lack of receptions clearly impacts his value, and of course there's a pending assault charge. We can't rule out a suspension, though it doesn't seem likely at the moment. If you're drafting Benson, the appropriate handcuff is second-year back Bernard Scott(notes). Veteran Brian Leonard(notes) (former sleeper) led all Bengals backs in receptions in 2009, however, and he's a solid bet to repeat.

In standard fantasy formats, Palmer will be drafted only as a high-end backup, not as a starter. None of us have him ranked higher than No. 15 at his position. In 2009, he failed to reach 200 passing yards in six of his final nine games (including the playoff loss to the Jets) and five of his 21 TD passes were thrown against an indifferent Chicago defense, so those were essentially layups. Palmer only appeared in four contests in '08 due to an elbow issue. The bottom line for Carson is that he's now at the controls of an offense that intends to run all day.

The Bengals will, of course, have a receiving corps that's loaded of familiar names. Ocho had an excellent season in '09, considering the team context. He led Cincinnati in all meaningful receiving categories (72-1,047-9) and finished with more than twice as many yards as the team's second leading receiver. Jets corner Darrelle Revis(notes) owned No. 85 late in the year, true, but he was a dominant corner all season. The Bengals signed Antonio Bryant(notes) to a four-year deal back in March, but concerns persist about his surgically repaired left knee. The team is now actively courting 36-year-old Terrell Owens(notes), a player they worked out before they agreed to terms with Bryant (and yeah, you can take this as a sign that Antonio may not be fully recovered). Andre Caldwell(notes) and rookie Jordan Shipley(notes) will battle for the scraps in the passing game.

The only sure thing in this group of receivers is Ocho, obviously. If you can get a bargain price on Bryant or T.O., do it. But I'm not likely to reach for these guys ahead of their current ADPs (99.5 for Bryant, 125.6 for Owens). If Cincinnati signs T.O. — and as I write this, they apparently have an offer on the table — it's reasonable to hope for a 50-55 catch season. Just don't assume that a once great receiver on the wrong side of 30 35 will significantly move the needle for this offense.

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Jermaine Gresham(notes) is the only rookie tight end to crack our top-20, and Palmer has raved about him

"I don't know if there is anything that any tight end in this league does that he can't potentially do," Palmer said. "Not that he's mastered anything yet. Not that he's got everything down. But I don't see a weakness." … "The sky's the limit for him. God has given him the natural physical tools and ability to do anything in this league."

…but Carson loves everyone during the offseason. He's a propaganda machine. He'll make a fine fantasy analyst when his playing days are over.

Tight end is clearly the deepest position in our game this year, so you're not likely to actually draft Gresham in a standard format. Just file away the name. He's coming off knee surgery and he missed the '09 season, but he's a hyper-athletic giant (6-foot-6, 261) and he was an unstoppable force in '08 at Oklahoma (66-950-14).

Under coordinator Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati's defense limited opponents to just 301.4 yards per game last season, the fourth lowest total in the league. They were a top-10 unit against both the run and pass. Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes) may have been the best pair of corners in the NFL last season. There's a lot to like here from a fantasy perspective, though it's worth noting that the Bengals have a few elite offenses on the schedule in 2010 (New England, Indianapolis, New Orleans, San Diego, Baltimore twice). The IDPs to target are Hall, Joseph, LB Dhani Jones(notes) and DE Antwan Odom(notes).

We will now yield our remaining minutes to anyone who wishes to discuss T.O., Matt Jones(notes), Marvin Lewis, Pete Johnson, Coy Bacon, Ken Anderson, or this inspirational ballad. But we shall speak no more of Cedric. Too … much … hurt.

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