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It’s best-ball season. If you aren’t drafting best-ball teams right here on Yahoo, honestly I question whether you even like fantasy football.
I’m being 100 percent serious.
Best-ball allows you to compete for real money, sharpen your craft against serious competition and enjoy the best part about fantasy football (drafting) over and over again all summer long.
Despite all the work done on cracking the best-ball code, there are still so many ways to create a roster. Many present truly viable paths to winning. One of my favorite strategies I try to employ in every single best-ball draft comes with a daily fantasy football influence.
I’m all about stacking offenses I expect to be good units, especially at a value.
If you need a refresher on what stacking is and why you should do it, refer to the intro piece for this series.
I divide best ball stacks into three tiers:
-HIGH-VALUE STACK: You'll have to pay a draft premium to get these players.
-DISCOUNT STACK: A few high picks, but won't break the bank.
-CLEARANCE-AISLE STACK: Mid-to-late-round fliers who could pay off in a big way.
For this week, we’re going to look at the Cincinnati Bengals, a typically downtrodden franchise that’s suddenly littered with quality young offensive pieces.
The case for stacking the Bengals
We don’t typically associate offensive fireworks with the Cincinnati Bengals, but the current iteration of this offense does have the right peripherals.
The Bengals were extremely pass-heavy last year. It wasn’t just because they were consistently losing, either. When games were within three points, the Bengals executed passing plays 62 percent of the time, the sixth-highest mark in the league. This was a continuation of what Zac Taylor offered in 2019 when the team ranked third-highest at (again) 62 percent.
The only teams ahead of them in 2020 were the Steelers, Falcons, Bills, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. We know to mine for fantasy gold from all of those offenses. With this type of play-calling, the Bengals could join this cohort.
Overall play volume is in the Bengals’ favor as well. Cincinnati ranked 13th in plays run with 1,043. They were also ninth in 2019.
A high-percentage, uptempo offense is exactly what you want to run with a quarterback like Joe Burrow. Most of Burrow’s raw numbers aren’t anything more than solid for a rookie but he fits stylistically with this type of offense from an accuracy perspective. Burrow’s 3.7 completion percentage over expectation (per Next Gen Stats) was sixth-best among relevant passers in 2020.
The one area where Burrow struggled mightily as a rookie was the deep-passing game. Even when the Bengals' offense was clicking before Burrow got hurt, they just could not push the ball downfield. Burrow completed just nine of his 48 throws that traveled 20-plus yards. That’s hideous.
You could definitely point out that this is a reflection of Burrow himself; he’s not the strongest-armed passer. Combine the fact he was so drastically worse than all other quarterbacks with the old eye test, and it’s hard to avoid that conclusion.
It’s also just as difficult to imagine him being the stone worst in this metric for the second year in a row, especially when you consider A.J. Green was often the vertical target in this offense last year. Any-Bengals quarterback-to-Green was one of the least efficient QB/WR duos in the NFL last year.
Ja’Marr Chase, come on down!
The Bengals didn’t just take Chase fifth overall in this year’s draft because he has baked-in chemistry with Burrow. He also filled one of their biggest team needs. Chase is a high-quality vertical separator and a special downfield-ball winner.
He is the alpha this team needs.
You can chirp all you want about the decision to pass on Penei Sewell but Chase is absolutely going to open up the entire field and change the way this offense operates.
With Chase in the fold, the Bengals are forming a poor man’s version of The Dallas offense — shoutout to Anthony Amico of Establish the Run for dubbing them “Cowboys north.” They have an ascending quarterback, a great trio of wide receivers, a workhorse running back, and not much target competition beyond them.
Let’s start in the backfield. By all accounts this year, Joe Mixon is going to get plenty of work under this coaching staff:
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan on the plan for third-down usage among the RBs: "I don't want Joe (Mixon) to leave the field, and I think he's up for that challenge."
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) May 1, 2021
The team showed their hand when they said goodbye to long-time Bengal Gio Bernard. The veteran back has never had fewer than 40 targets in a season. He’s consistently nipped at Mixon’s heels as a receiver. Bernard moving on is a huge boon to Mixon’s ceiling projection. Currently going off the board as RB12, Mixon has a top-five finish in his range of outcomes if he finally gets 80% of the backfield to himself. At the very least, he’s an easy floor play.
In the receiver room, the top two guys are going about 10 positional spots lower than Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb from Dallas. Chase is going in the early WR20’s range while Tee Higgins usually falls to WR26 or later. However, Tyler Boyd’s range is much higher than Michael Gallup’s, for comparison. Boyd is a mid-thirties guy where Gallup is far more underrated at WR40.
We’ve already talked about Chase’s appeal but don’t forget about Higgins and Boy; don’t be so hasty to bump them down from what they produced in 2020. Chase can slide into A.J. Green’s available targets (104) and still leave meat on the bone for the other two. Sure, neither Higgins nor Boyd have the ceiling they would have carried if the Bengals drafted a lineman at five, but a more efficient offense overall with more touchdown potential can still be an overall boost to their projections.
Stacking the Bengals will take some strategy since all the receivers leave the board between 45th and 75th overall. The best plan of attack would be to snag just one of the higher weekly players (Chase or Higgins) and then circle back for the weekly floor guy in Boyd. Then you’ll have to prioritize taking Burrow. With Mixon’s potential receiving role on the rise, don’t hesitate to go with this plan even if you took the running back at the Round 1-to-2 turn.
The case against stacking the Bengals
It would start with Joe Burrow’s health.
The word out of Bengals camp is that all is well with Burrow’s knee after a brutal injury. That said, if you’re not willing to buy that, it could change your individual projections about the player. A decent bit of Burrow’s fantasy floor was buoyed by his 37 rush attempts and three scores on the ground.
If he’s less willing or effective as a rusher, his QB9-10 ADP would look aggressive in hindsight.
I understand and endorse the logic behind taking Chase at No. 5 but make no mistake, the offensive line is still not a strength of the team. When fully healthy the tackle combination of Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff is a league-average duo. There are plenty of questions that make those guys a true iffy projection. The team would also need Jackson Carmen to start right away as a rookie, considering the interior of the line was the big question mark.
While the offensive line doesn’t look like the type of unit that would tank the entire offense on its own like it was in 2020, we can still be honest that it’ll create some pause when clicking up a Bengals’ stack.
The Bengals stack is also a relatively top-heavy stack. Players like tight end Drew Sample, Auden Tate, or anyone else on the receiver depth chart just don’t make much sense to draft at this point.
There is also an element of “We just haven’t seen it yet” with both Chase and Mixon, two of the crucial points in this stack. Chase is obviously a rookie. We’ve seen plenty of instant impact from first-year receivers over the last few seasons but if Chase stalls out of the gate, it’ll sink this build, especially since he’s such a key part of boosting this unit’s overall efficiency.
While everything is set up for Mixon to see a bulky workload and operate as a full-season RB1, we haven’t seen him operate as a 70-catch type of back yet. We love the talent, and his college profile boasted a back that would be a passing game asset in the pros, but it just hasn’t happened. Maybe 2021 is the year ... but maybe it’s not.
Lastly, who exactly is Zac Taylor? The one-time Sean McVay disciple still feels like a wild card as an NFL play-caller. While we like the play volume and decision to be pass-heavy in this offense’s bones, the results have been objectively poor. Taylor’s teams have averaged 4.9 yards per play in each of the last two seasons.
Having a healthy QB1 and fully stocked cupboard of receivers should make a huge difference for Taylor’s offense. It’s also possible he’s just not up for this challenge.
Verdict: DISCOUNT STACK
In order to complete the Bengals stack, you’ll have to be alert and active in the mid-rounds. You need to stalk opponents in Rounds 5 to 8 to ensure you get two of the three receivers and circle back for Burrow. It will take determination but at the same time, it does free you up in the first four rounds to just take the players you like at their value.
Sneakily, that might be my favorite part of the Bengals stack. You can snag top players at running back, receiver, or tight end and still work to compete the Cincinnati construction. It also opens the possibility of a multi-stacked team with a high-end receiver and a quarterback going later than Burrow.
For example, you can draft an A.J. Brown, Calvin Ridley, Justin Jefferson, or Terry McLaurin. Then you complete the Bengals stack and turn to stack one of those high-end WR1s with their respective quarterback.
Even if there are questions with the head coach and the players, the way this offense has called plays and the individual talents on the team make this a stack worth chasing. The exciting young offense in Cincinnati could be the key to unlocking fantasy drafts in 2021.