Juggernaut Index, No. 8: Andy Dalton is a draft steal, surrounded with talent

Cincinnati Bengals fans should be filled with enthusiasm entering 2017. If the O-line can protect Andy Dalton, this offense has a chance to be plenty fun. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Just two years ago, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had forced his way into the MVP conversation. It was December of 2015 and Dalton had guided the Bengals to a 10-2 record. He’d completed over 66 percent of his throws at a hyper-efficient 8.4 yards per attempt. He was on pace to finish his season with 4255 passing yards, 37 combined TDs and just eight interceptions. It was, without question, a new and better Dalton.

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But then, in keeping with tradition, the Steelers ruined everything. Dalton threw a red-zone screen pass that was intercepted by a lineman, and he fractured his right thumb pursuing the tackle. Season over. With A.J. McCarron at the controls, Cincinnati went on to lose that game, then another at Denver, and then again to the Steelers in the Wild Card round (in a classic/bizarre/sloppy game).

Dalton wasn’t as efficient in 2016 as he’d been the year prior, yet he still managed to pass for 4206 yards while throwing only eight picks in 16 games. He’s been intercepted just 15 times in his last 29 games, so it’s reasonable to conclude that he’s no longer the giveaway-prone QB we saw in his early years. He also completed a respectable 40.3 percent of his deep throws last season according to Player Profiler. Dalton may not be an upper-tier NFL passer, but he’s plenty capable. His single-season high in TD passes is 33 and he typically rushes for another 2-4 scores. Bottom line, you can win a fantasy title with Dalton as your quarterback.

The Bengals enter the season with significant questions on the offensive line, after losing both Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth in free agency. But if this team can successfully block for Dalton, he’s going to deliver a top-10 positional finish. Cincinnati spent its first and second-round draft picks on receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon, dynamic skill players who each add new elements to this team’s offense. Dalton will also have A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert at his disposal, and both players will be fully operational in opening week.

Despite a friendly setup, Dalton has been drafted as the No. 16 QB off the board in Yahoo leagues, nowhere near the first 10 rounds (ADP 118.5). He’s a steal at his current price, a player who should return an easy profit.

A.J. Green leads an enhanced receiving corps.

We shouldn’t need to tell you that Green is ridiculously good. He’s much closer in value to the top-three at his position — AB, Julio and OBJ — than he is to the next tier. Before a hamstring injury ended Green’s season last November, he was averaging 7.3 receptions and 107.1 yards per game. Green has earned Pro Bowl recognition in each of his six seasons. For his career, he’s averaged 83.0 yards and 0.6 TDs per week. He’s as good as it gets and entering his age-29 season. To me, he’s a no doubt first-round fantasy selection, a clear top-four receiver. I’m drafting him just after Odell Beckham and ahead of Mike Evans. Last year, he averaged 11 targets per game before the injury. You want him. Draft and enjoy.

Fantasy owners, you want this guy. A.J. Green is as good as it gets. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ross adds a unique vertical threat opposite Green, but we should note that the rookie missed much of the team’s offseason program while recovering from shoulder surgery. Right now, the expectation is that Ross will be available in the opener, but he’ll have only a supporting role early in the season. He figures to be more valuable in October and November than in September.

Ross of course has rare speed, even by NFL standards; he ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, breaking Chris Johnson’s combine record. He was far more than simply a one-trick deep threat at Washington, but his home-run ability is certainly his most appealing trick. Ross produced 1150 receiving yards and 17 spikes on 81 receptions last year, though he was all but erased by Alabama’s DBs in the playoff semifinal. We can expect him to have value as a first-year receiver, but I can’t project him as the top rookie wideout for redraft purposes.

For now, Brandon LaFell and second-year receiver Tyler Boyd appear to be the second and third receivers on this team. LaFell and Boyd combined for 118 catches and 1465 yards last season, but those numbers won’t hold in the year ahead — not with Green back in the mix and Ross stealing snaps. In leagues of standard size, both LaFell and Boyd can go un-drafted.

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Eifert’s issues have always been related to durability, not talent. He’s a gifted receiver and a gigantic human (6-foot-6), but he’s only managed to play 37 games over four years. In his best season, he only caught 52 balls for 615 yards. You’re drafting him for his red-zone role and for no other reason. He’s drawn 27 RZ targets in 21 games over the past two years. If he can remain upright for, say, 12 weeks in 2017, he has a shot at 7-10 touchdowns. I’m not a fan of his draft price at all (ADP 65.0, TE6) given the depth at his position, but I can understand the loyalty from those who owned him in 2015.

Joe Mixon, stuck in committee.

If preseason usage means anything — and in Cincy’s case, we think it does — this backfield is going to be productive in reality and moderately annoying in fantasy. Check the snap counts for Joe Mixon and Jeremy Hill:

Hill has been a brutal watch over the past two seasons, averaging just 3.7 YPC, but the Bengals keep feeding him near the goal-line. He’s taken 49 handoffs inside the 10-yard line since 2015, one of the highest totals in the league. Hill isn’t a special runner, yet he’s averaged 10 touchdowns per season since entering the league. He’s going to start games early in the year and see plenty of early down work. He’s currently dealing with an ankle injury of as-yet-unknown severity, but initial reports didn’t seem dire. He’ll play. Please direct additional questions about his usage to head coach Marvin Lewis and/or Bengals PR, because I can’t fully explain it.

Joe Mixon is almost certainly the most talented back on this team, but, for now, he seems to be a committee member. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Mixon has had a few nice preseason moments, gaining 110 scrimmage yards on 23 touches, and he’ll split early down work with Hill. Mixon is the livelier player and, at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, he’s built to handle a featured role. He averaged 6.8 YPC over two highlight-rich seasons at Oklahoma, totaling 1812 scrimmage yards last year. Big-12 games are never a tackling clinic, but few scouts questioned Mixon’s every-down ability. He remains the favorite to ultimately lead this backfield in total touches and scrimmage yards. However, it’s tough to rank him alongside the other top rookie backs — Cook, Fournette, Hunt, McCaffrey — when we know he’s running in committee.

Veteran Giovani Bernard is returning from an ACL injury on a tight timeline, but he’s been a full go in camp and he played in the team’s third preseason game. Expect him to occupy a third-down/passing-down role, functioning as a further annoyance to Mixon owners. It’s tough to imagine Bernard seeing 150-plus carries in this offense, but he’s likely to finish with his usual 45-55 receptions. He’s approved for PPR use.

This defense doesn’t deserve a subhead, if we’re being honest.

Cincinnati had a middle-of-the-pack defense last season in terms of yards, takeaways and sacks. We need to view this group strictly as a matchup play. No need to own ’em until Weeks 5 and 6, when the Bengals face the Browns and Bills. Vontaze Burfict would have been a recommended IDP, but he’s now facing a five-game suspension for an illegal hit in a preseason game. Very good player, Burfict, but occasionally an on-field lunatic.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 20.3 (24)
Pass YPG – 246.4 (15)
Rush YPG – 110.6 (13)
Yards per play – 5.4 (18)
Plays per game – 65.6 (11)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo, 21) Philadelphia, 20) Miami, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington, 16) NY Giants, 15) Tennessee, 14) LA Chargers, 13) Carolina, 12) Houston, 11) Arizona, 10) Oakland, 9) Tampa Bay, 8) Cincinnati

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