In some ways, the Cincinnati Bengals' roster resembles a fantasy football team. They're loaded with offensive skill talent, have just enough playmakers on defense and have an offensive line that's far from complete.
The Bengals have spent their past five first-round draft picks, and six of their past seven first-rounders, on offense. Eight of their past nine second-round picks also were on the offensive side of the ball. It's not hard to see how they've gotten here.
Not all of those players remain on the Bengals’ current roster. But it’s not surprising that this approach has helped build one of the NFL’s most potent offenses, ranked in the league’s top seven this season in yards per play, pass yards per play and points per game. All that despite the team's shortcomings along the offensive line — and perhaps with parts of the defense — that likely will require significant improvement this offseason.
This fantasy football approach to roster building (even if the Bengals internally might bristle at us calling it that) has paid off for now for Cincinnati, which is a victory on Sunday away from reaching its first Super Bowl in 33 years.
Is this a viable team-building strategy?
No, one former NFL general manager told us this week. However …
“We did do some studies going back a few years back now, looking at the quickest ways to improve,” the ex-GM told Yahoo Sports, “and we found that a lot of it was tied to better [offensive skill players], better special teams and more turnovers [created], or just a better turnover [ratio]. You look, and Dallas did that. It can work short-term.”
This certainly applies to the Bengals.
From their 4-11-1 season in 2020 to their 10-7 mark this season, the team added wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (a Rookie of the Year favorite), improved dramatically in the kicking game (thanks to rookie Evan McPherson) and improved their turnover ratio by plus-7.
After the Bengals bypassed an offensive lineman to take Chase, the debate raged: Were the Bengals doing this correctly? The short-term answer has been a resounding yes.
Asked in May about how his roster looked following the 2021 draft, Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin started by praising quarterback Joe Burrow.
"When I look at our team, I’m excited," Tobin said. "I think we’ve got one of the premier, best young quarterbacks in the game, and we’re going to do everything we can to build around him and give him the opportunity to really shine and show what he can do. And so it’s going to start with him.
Tobin then went on to run through all the talent the Bengals had at receiver, tight end and at running back before spotlighting a few defensive positions. He didn't talk about the offensive line until Tobin was asked about it.
Eventually, the Bengals' offensive line will be addressed
It was a risk, putting Burrow — coming off an ACL injury — behind a less-than-established offensive line. So far, it has paid off. There's only so much that can be done in an offseason or two. And the Bengals did, for what it's worth, spend five draft picks the past three draft cycles, even if those results have been mixed.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor entered the season on the proverbial hot seat. Now he’s ice cold — and even a possible recipient of Coach of the Year votes. There might be teams willing to take this quick-fix approach to buy themselves time by winning more games and worrying about completing the full picture down the road.
“Maybe a team like Detroit or Carolina, that’s the approach you take this offseason,” the ex-GM suggested. “Add one or two playmakers. Get a better kicking game. And with more takeaways, you have a chance to win some close games you lost the year before.
“It buys you time. It actually helped us one season.”
The Lions ranked 25th in points scored, made only one field goal longer than 49 yards and were tied for 22nd in turnover ratio (minus-4). The Panthers ranked 29th in points, were solid but unspectacular in the kicking game and were tied for 29th in turnover ratio (minus-13).
“I’d say, good luck just finding another Joe Burrow,” the ex-GM said, also adding that the Bengals spent to upgrade their defense in multiple spots, especially up front.
That will be a challenge for teams such as the Lions and Panthers. So, short of doing that, how do teams stuck with middling quarterbacks — and perhaps no obvious way to upgrade this offseason — follow the Bengals’ model to success?
One way might be by finding playmakers who specialize in yards after the catch. All four teams left in the playoffs rank in the top 10 in that category.
The Bengals ranked fourth in yards after the catch this season, and Chase was a big reason why. He was third among all pass catchers this season in YAC, with 645 of his 1,453 yards coming after the catch. In 2020, without Chase, the Bengals ranked 20th in YAC, although Burrow’s late-season injury likely dampened that a bit.
Still, the numbers improved with Chase. It brings us back to the question of how viable this team-building approach is. It has gotten the Bengals to this point, but is it sustainable?
“I’d say the offensive line will be a priority for them [this offseason],” the ex-GM said of the Bengals. “You can’t live this way forever. How many sacks has Burrow taken in the playoffs?”
Informed that the number is a whopping 11, along with an additional seven QB hits, the GM added, “Yeah, see, that’s just not gonna work. That won't hold up. They know that, and I guarantee [Burrow] knows that. You can’t keep it going without that help up front. The Chiefs knew that last year after Tampa Bay exposed their line. They went out and made [improving the blocking] a priority this offseason.”
It’s possible the Bengals’ fantasy approach delivers them their first Super Bowl in the coming weeks. Or maybe they fall flat, either in the AFC championship game or in the Super Bowl; the other three remaining teams all can rush the passer, seemingly better than the Bengals can pass block.
“There might be something to what you’re saying,” the former GM said, “but it’s almost always coming back to bite you. I think it’s a failsafe, not a long-term plan for the sustained success you’re looking for.”