Think back to eleven months ago when it was NFL Draft SZN and the Cincinnati Bengals had the fifth pick in the 2021 draft. They just finished a 2020 season where they went 4-11-1 and lost their prized rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow, to an ACL injury. Before Burrow went down, stud rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins was lighting the world on fire. In his 16 games, he finished with 108 targets, 67 receptions, 908 yards, and six touchdowns. By the time the chalky first four picks went off the board, the Bengals had their choice of anyone. But the mocks all had them taking Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, offensive tackle, from Oregon. 

“When you have a chance to protect your quarterback, you have to take it,” said the 82-year-old scout, chomping on his cigar while he talked about Sewell’s hand size and quick burst off the snap. 

Except, the Bengals didn’t do that. They selected All-Everything wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase who sat out in 2020, but was Joe Burrow’s boy from their time at LSU. 

Grumble, grumble, grumble from the draftniks with the good hair and the football smarts. “You already have Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon, and C.J. Uzomah. You don’t need another pass-catcher!” Then Chase started complaining about not being able to see the NFL football in training camp and things REALLY went to hell. 

But then 2021 happened and the Bengals made the Super Bowl for the first time since 1988. You better believe the naysayers were rightly put in their places.

 

At the Super Bowl, however, the paradox of the Bengals’ success manifested itself again. Burrow was sacked a Super Bowl-record seven times, including on the play that ended the game. If Burrow had more time or more protection earlier in the game, would the Bengals have had more opportunities to score?

Nevermind the time loop that emerges if Sewell is on this team and there is no Chase to get wide open. Makes your brain hurt.

The Bengals must now play the hand they were dealt in 2022 and beyond. They will surely look for O-line help in free agency and the draft. But the offense is stacked and locked up for the foreseeable future. Would offensive line help mean a more explosive offense? What does that mean for fantasy in 2022 and beyond? Who should we buy and sell for the Bengals on our fantasy squads? 

Buy: Tee Higgins

The fantasy football world lost their collective minds over Ja’Marr Chase and his absolute dominance in 2021 as a rookie. Chase set the record for most receiving yards in a season by a rookie (1,455) and most receiving yards in one game (266 in the fantasy championship week). Toss in 13 touchdowns and an Offensive Rookie of the Year award and you have a slam-dunk top-five dynasty pick on our hands. But the inflated price on Chase might allow Higgins to go under the radar a bit. 

Higgins’ 1,091 yards and six touchdowns (in 14 games) look quaint compared to Chase, but the two are closer than you might think. First is that simple fact that Higgins missed two games early in the season. Give him 16 games like Chase and all of a sudden, Higgin’s numbers are on pace for 85 catches, 1,247 yards and perhaps seven touchdowns. 

The volume and efficiency was there most of the season as well. In those metrics, there is not much separation between the two.

 
 
Tar Rec Rec Yds Air Yds  YAC  aDOT  Air %  Tar % WOPR 
Tee Higgins (14 gms) 110 74 1091 1327 290 12.06 34% 23.5%
0.59
Ja’Marr Chase 128 81 1455 1617 651 12.63 37% 23.4% 0.61

Higgins bested Chase slightly in target share, and was almost his equal in aDOT, air yards share, and WOPR. Higgins may never have the explosive yards after the catch ability that Chase possesses, but the reality is, except for YAC and touchdowns, these two are closer than you think. 

It certainly isn’t enough of a difference to account for 25 spots in ADP that separate them in early 2022 consensus ranks. Having just turned 23 one month ago, give me Higgins in dynasty over Diontae Johnson, Keenan Allen, and DeAndre Hopkins

Sell: C.J. Uzomah (or whoever the tight end is in 2022)

Once the Bengals’ coaching staff were convinced Joe Burrow was full recovered from his knee injury, they really stepped on the gas in their passing game. From Weeks 7-17 (Burrow sat out Week 18) only five quarterbacks had more drop-backs than Burrow. One of those was Trevor Lawrence, who can not be considered an actual real NFL quarterback yet. 

But even with all that passing volume, the tight end position was an afterthought for Cincinnati. Among 32 NFL teams, the Bengals targeted their tight end just 83 times, which ranked 30th. Uzomah drew 63 of those targets which helped him collect 49 receptions for 493 yards and five touchdowns. But 186 of yards and four touchdowns came in just two games in Weeks 4 and 7. Just 307 yards and one score in the other 14 games won’t get you excited at the draft table. 

Uzomah is a free agent this year, and has certainly expressed his desire to return to the Bengals after the Super Bowl run. The tight end market could quickly escalate this offseason which means Cincinnati may not be able to afford him. The Chase-Sewell Paradox also states that Cincinnati must prioritize O-linemen in free agency over fifth options in the offense. 

But whether it’s Uzomah or some other average to above-average tight end. The scheme we saw in 2021 doesn’t inspire confidence that this will be anything other than the Mixon-Chase-Higgins-Boyd show for years to come.