Jameis Winston. Marcus Mariota. Philip Rivers.
These are typically the most often named quarterbacks deemed the biggest “winners” from the 2017 NFL Draft.
An underappreciated winner of the draft that isn’t being talked about as loudly as he should be is Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.
The Bengals spent significant draft capital addressing both wide receiver and running back in this year’s draft. While some of these rookies could make a major impact in their first year, the biggest winner of the group may be Dalton, who is suddenly inundated with more weapons at his disposal than he’s ever had in his career.
Weapons Galore for Andy Dalton
Cincinnati spent their first round pick (ninth overall) on Washington’s John Ross. Ross — who posted a record-breaking 4.22 40-yard dash — is expected to line up opposite A.J. Green. While Green will still command the attention of opposing defensive coordinators, they’ll have to begin to take into account the speed Ross brings to stretch the defense vertically. Ross, whose speed has been overly-compared to DeSean Jackson, was actually mentored by the Tampa Bay wideout. When Jackson was on the field for Washington, his field-stretching speed opened up a ton of options for Kirk Cousins, subsequently raising their points per drive.
Last year the Bengals ranked 24th in scoring, averaging just 20.3 points per game and 1.85 points per drive. It’s not unreasonable to surmise Cincinnati seeing a sizeable increase in points per drive with the addition of a field stretcher like Ross. His speed will keep defensive backs protecting the deep part of the field and allow other receivers to flourish underneath.
Ross finished his final collegiate season at Washington posting an 81-1,150-17 stat line. He dominated from a market share perspective, accumulating 31.7 percent of the receiving yards and 36.2 percent of the receiving touchdowns. Joining the Bengals, Ross will likely see a roller coaster of week-to-week fantasy production, but his addition is undoubtedly a net positive for the offense as a whole.
The Bengals also invested a fourth-round pick in Josh Malone. The 6-foot-3-inch, former Tennessee Vol scored 11 touchdowns on just 50 receptions as a junior and adds another dimension to this Cincinnati passing attack. Last year’s third-rounder, Tyler Boyd, will likely get the nod at slot receiver, despite his rather pedestrian 54-603-1 stat line as a rookie. Boyd should continue to run the majority of his routes from there after creating a good rapport with Dalton on third downs (led the team in third down targets), leaving Malone to back up the outside receivers along with Brandon LaFell.
LaFell led the team in red zone targets last year (17), so we shouldn’t entirely write him off in this offense for 2017, but he could see a drastic reduction in targets and snaps. Look for a healthy Green to gobble up a majority of those red zone looks in addition to Ross (who was surprisingly efficient in the RZ) and Tyler Eifert.
Eifert missed eight games last season, but over the past two years combined, he leads all tight ends in receiving touchdowns with 18. If he can have a successful return from back surgery, Dalton could be in for a career year.
The Bengals also helped their quarterback by drafting the controversial Joe Mixon, who posted some elite numbers on a per touch basis at Oklahoma. Graham Barfield’s “Yards Created” paint Mixon in a positive light, as one of the best rushers he’s ever charted in his database:
Joe Mixon's 6.75 Yards Created/attempt is the best I have in my database. For reference: Zeke (5.98), Fournette (5.83), McCaffrey (5.69).
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) February 7, 2017
Taken 48th overall, Mixon will be an upgrade over the consistently declining Jeremy Hill, whose numbers have taken a turn for the worse after a breakout rookie season. Mixon can step in right away and be a versatile replacement with better receiving skills than Hill, with the offense not showing their hand whether it’s a run or pass play.
Giovani Bernard‘s torn ACL late in the season should allow the coaching staff to get plenty of reps with Mixon over the summer. Bernard signed a three-year, $15.5M deal and will certainly carve out a role, but it may be more in a receiving capacity given his history.
Mixon can provide the best of both backs and enters the league with one of the best comps a rookie running back could ask for:
The Elephant in the Room
While the weapons around Dalton improved drastically this offseason, it wasn’t all rainbows and ice cream cones for the Bengals.
Cincinnati lost two of their best offensive linemen via free agency. Make no mistake about it, it was a major loss to the offense as a whole. Andrew Whitworth was an 11-year vet at left tackle. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top pass-blocking tackle in 2016 and will likely be replaced by either Cedric Ogbuehi or Jake Fisher. The Rams paid Whitworth an exorbitant amount of money, but it undoubtedly puts the Bengals in a bind entering 2017.
Cincinnati also let Kevin Zeitler, PFF’s fifth-highest ranked pass-blocking guard, move on to their AFC North rival, the Cleveland Browns. Zeitler became the highest-paid guard in NFL history after signing a five-year, $60M contract.
Letting both walk is a huge detriment to the team after investing multiple early round draft picks in the line over the past few years. What was once a strength of the team has turned into what could be a liability. The Bengals spent just a fifth-round draft pick on J.J. Dielman, a 6-foot-5-inch, 309-pound center out of Utah. He projects as nothing more than a depth selection.
Are these really moves that have helped Dalton become a winner coming out of the draft?
No, but the rest of Cincinnati’s moves should leave reason for optimism.
Andy Dalton’s Outlook in 2017 and Beyond
Given the pace Cincinnati played at last year — eighth-fastest at 26.81 seconds per play — we know OC Ken Zampese favors an uptempo offense. That was a markedly improved number over former OC Hue Jackson’s offense, which ranked 29th (29.10 seconds) in 2015.
Dalton is also one of the league’s fastest passers. His quick time to throw was among the top-10 of all quarterbacks last season and will be something the Bengals may need to utilize out of necessity in 2017.
These two factors should play a significant role in the offense trying to mitigate their losses along the offensive line. If Dalton can continue to quickly get the ball out of his hands, he should be able to keep the offense on track and let his playmakers excel in the open field.
While Dalton will have many new faces to throw to this year, the biggest source of improvement for him after finishing last year as the QB12, will be the return of A.J. Green.
While they may look like minor improvements at first glance, over the course of a 16-game season those little incremental improvements can make Dalton a bona fide QB1 over a fringe top-12 option. If Green’s 2016 numbers were extrapolated out to 16 games, he would’ve been in line for a career-best 106 receptions for 1,542 yards and 6 touchdowns — a top-5 wide receiver finish.
Over the past few years, Dalton has consistently been right around the QB12 mark. In fact, he finished as the QB12 last year despite coming off a career-low 18 passing touchdowns. Also, Dalton’s touchdown rate was the lowest of his career at 3.20 percent last season, well below his career average rate since entering the league in 2011:
QB touchdown rates in 2016 vs. a player's rate since 2011. A big reason to like Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton next year in fantasy. pic.twitter.com/yloFunWKaR
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) April 12, 2017
2016 was about as large an outlier as we’ve seen from Dalton over the course of his career. Dalton’s been one of the league’s highest scoring quarterbacks to start a career. Only Dan Marino (196), Peyton Manning (167), Matt Ryan (153), and Brett Favre (147) have thrown more passing touchdowns in a quarterback’s first six seasons than Dalton’s 142. Looking at his career numbers, his 2016 season truly stands out as an outlier and early projections should have him well above 20+ touchdowns for 2017.
Given the additions the team has made this past offseason, Dalton enters 2017 in perhaps the best supporting environment of his career. In Superflex and 2QB leagues, he’s become a major trade target of mine to pair with a volatile quarterback. Dalton should be in line to provide steady points as a strong Superflex/QB2 option that allows you to ride out the waves of a volatile QB1, and he could likely be bought for just a random 2018 second round pick in dynasty leagues.
The Bengals have revamped their offense in a major way this offseason. While the individual pieces may steal fantasy points from one another, the biggest winner in Cincinnati is Andy Dalton. If their offensive line can come together in training camp and provide serviceable protection, we could see the Bengals make a potential run at the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2016. After finishing as a top-12 quarterback with just 18 touchdowns last year, Dalton looks like a strong bet to finish even better in 2017.
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