QB Andy Dalton
In real football terms, Dalton delivered far more than was expected of him as a rookie signal caller in 2011, leading the Bengals to a 9-7 record and earning a wildcard playoff spot. Along the way, he threw for 3,398 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and even chipped in 152 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Considering he didn’t have the benefit of a full offseason, those accomplishments were impressive but it’s safe to say more is expected in 2012. The knock on Dalton is that he lacks elite arm strength which hurts his ability to make big plays but that is somewhat offset by having the opportunity to play with wide receiver A.J. Green, who has the ability to adjust in midflight on deep passes. For Dalton to improve on his 15th fantasy quarterback ranking from a year ago, he will need both Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham to make improvements and for another player to step up opposite Green at wide receiver. Dalton hit the rookie wall in Week 13, tossing four touchdowns and averaging just 178 passing yards per game over his final five games, which included four games with less than 200 yards passing. On the plus side, he averaged 27 rushing yards over his final three games, including the team’s wildcard playoff loss. Heading into 2012, Dalton ranks as a middle tier QB2 with upside if he gets some unexpected production opposite Green.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
With Cedric Benson having worn out his welcome in Cincinnati despite having produced three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, the Bengals signed former Patriot Green-Ellis to take over as the team’s starting running back. Green-Ellis and Benson are remarkably similar players in both the running and passing games but Green-Ellis has much better ball protection skills, having never fumbled during his four years in New England. In essence, much of Green-Ellis’ appeal is that he doesn’t make mistakes since he isn’t a big play threat and his ability as a receiver leaves much to be desired. He derived much of his fantasy production in New England from his ability to find the end zone (24 touchdowns over the last two seasons) and churn out yards in the fourth quarter. Let’s just say those opportunities won’t be as bountiful now that he’s in Cincinnati. The Bengals have said they want to go with more of a committee approach so The Law Firm is unlikely to approach the 21.7 touches per game that Benson averaged over the last three seasons. However, if the Bengals liked Bernard Scott, they would have handed him the starting job and not signed BJGE. Add it all up and Green-Ellis rates as a lower tier RB3 who isn’t risky but also lacks upside.
RB Bernard Scott
Scott enters his 4th year in the league having solidified his hold on the Bengals backup running back position. On the plus side, the Bengals finally followed through in 2011 on their oft-stated plans to get him more involved in the offense, with Scott reaching career-highs in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns as well as in receptions. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t have liked what they saw – and with averages of 3.4 yards per rushing attempt and 2.9 yards per receptions, who can blame them? Scott will play a complimentary role to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and will be drafted as an RB5 late in your fantasy draft.
WR A.J. Green
What more could you expect? Despite not having an offseason, Green stepped into the Bengals starting lineup and with a rookie quarterback, put together a Pro Bowl quality season with 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games. His first year numbers topped those put up by Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald as Green became the first rookie wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003. More is expected of Green in 2012 and it will qualify as a major surprise if he does not deliver. Andy Dalton struggled at quarterback over the Bengals final five games but both he and Green will benefit from having their rookie seasons under their belts as well as their first full offseason to work together. Look for the pair to improve on their 56.5% completion percentage and for Green to continue his ascension on his way to becoming one of the league’s elite receivers. He has the size, speed, leaping and athletic ability to be mentioned alongside Johnson and Fitzgerald as one of the league’s top wide receivers and that should happen no later than the 2013 season. In fact, it won’t be a surprise if he is at that level by the end of this season.
WR Mohamed Sanu
Chosen in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, Sanu has an opportunity to compete for a starting spot as a rookie on a Bengals team desperate to find a solid starting option opposite A.J. Green. Coming out of Rutgers, Sanu has solid size at 6’2”, 210 pounds and is considered strictly a possession receiver given his inability to consistently get separation from defenders and the low average yards per catch he had in college. He has solid hands and will challenge for a spot outside although there is a chance he could also be used in the slot. With A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham expected to eat up plenty of targets, Sanu rates as little more than a late round flier in redraft leagues provided he puts together a solid preseason.
WR Jordan Shipley
After a solid rookie season with 52 receptions for 600 yards and three touchdowns, Shipley suffered a torn ACL in Week 2 last season. Shipley lacks the physical abilities to succeed playing outside and is best suited lining up in the slot which limits his upside. The Bengals figure to employ three wide receiver sets often in 2012 but Shipley will need to hold off rookie 3rd round pick Mohamed Sanu and 2nd year player Andrew Hawkins, who was decent filling in for Shipley for parts of last season. Given his uncertain role and the fact he is returning from a serious injury (albeit one suffered early last season), Shipley should go undrafted in all but the deepest of leagues.
WR Marvin Jones
With a hole in the starting lineup opposite A.J. Green, the Bengals chose Mohamed Sanu in the 3rd round of this year’s draft and Jones in the 5th. While Sanu is the more polished route runner and closer to contributing right away, Jones may have more upside given his superior speed (4.46 40-yard dash) provided he can add some bulk to his 6’3”, 200 pound frame. Jones didn’t put up huge numbers at California (62 receptions for 846 yards and three touchdowns in 2011) but will get an opportunity to earn a starting role in Cincinnati in 2012. While he will likely enter the season in a reserve role, Jones is worth monitoring as a potential waiver wire candidate in redraft leagues and he is a lower tier prospect in dynasty formats.
WR Brandon Tate
Cast aside by the Patriots after failing to justify his selection in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft, Tate found a home as a kick and punt returner with the Bengals in 2011. Although he failed to catch a single ball last season, he will compete for a role as a wide receiver and deep threat on a Cincinnati squad that lacks a proven producer opposite A.J. Green. Unless he surprises and opens the season in the starting lineup, Tate isn’t worth owning.
TE Jermaine Gresham
With Jay Gruden coming on board in 2011 as the Bengals offensive coordinator to run a version of the west coast offense, the hope was that Gresham’s role would be increased. However, that failed to materialize as his targets only increased from 83 to 92 (he missed two games). His production improved marginally to 56 receptions for 596 yards and six touchdowns. While that isn’t horrible, Gresham is clearly capable of much more given his outstanding athletic ability although there have been whispers that his route running and understanding of the team’s playbook could be improved. There is also the issue of whether Gruden is going to get him out into more patterns as opposed to staying in to block on passing downs. Gresham clearly has upside and the ability to become a mid-tier TE1 but until we have indications that his use is going up, draft him as an upper tier backup.