By Aaron Bellamy
Joe Burrow will probably make the Bengals better, but he won’t improve their fantasy value.
There is often a disconnect between football outcomes and fantasy football production. The disconnect has its most significant impact when assessing the change in fantasy value for players on a team that drafted their new stud quarterback. In this article, we will look at the last decade of top-16 quarterbacks and analyze why you shouldn’t expect increased fantasy production from any of the Bengals skill position players in 2020. However, if you think Joe Burrow is going to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history, then you’re probably going to disagree with everything in this article.
Rookie QBs tend to mirror the previous season’s production.
I looked at top-16 drafted quarterbacks and how their performance transformed their team year-over-year. There were 19 QBs since 2010 who were selected in the top-16 and played significant time in their rookie season. I avoided quarterbacks drafted later in the draft because the point is that Burrow is joining a team that was terrible in 2019.
On average, a rookie quarterback will have 1.3 fewer pass attempts and 2.3 fewer passing yards than than their team had in the previous season. For Joe Burrow, that means he would average about 37.2 passing attempts and 247.6 passing yards per game. That level of passing attempts might seem high, but Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz, and Andrew Luck all eclipsed that number in their rookie seasons. Teams that pass the ball don’t tend to change that strategy for their rookie QBs unless the QB is terrible or they are capable runners. Robert Griffin, III, for instance, averaged nine fewer pass attempts than the 2011 Redskins signal-callers, but he made a difference on the ground. On the other hand, Josh Rosen had 7.7 fewer attempts than the 2017 Cardinals passers, but that’s just because he was a terrible starting QB.
Total quarterback scoring has not changed significantly over the last decade. In 2012, Andrew Luck was the QB9 while scoring 294 points. Those 294 points would have made him QB8 in 2019 or QB12 in 2018. Unfortunately for Burrow, his passing totals don’t project as high as Luck’s 2012 season. Based on the historical data, Burrow seems set to fall outside of QB1 territory.
The running backs almost always regress as well.
Everyone already knows that rookie quarterbacks rarely enter the QB1 conversation. Still, it’s just as important to look at the rest of the skill positions and how they are impacted by having a rookie signal-caller. Looking at those 19 QBs, I compared the primary running back or two on the team from the prior year to the QB’s rookie year. Of those opportunities, there were only seven times when the top running back on the team finished as a better fantasy option with the rookie quarterback.
There are some significant improvements among those seven. Maurice Jones–Drew went from RB13 to RB3 after Blaine Gabbert became the starter. Alfred Morris blew up in his rookie season to become the RB6 after Roy Helu had been the top Washington running back in 2011. Doug Martin went all the way from RB50 to RB3 after the Bucs drafted Jameis Winston. Those kinds of improvements didn’t often happen, though, and even great running backs like Todd Gurley, Steven Jackson, or Adrian Peterson saw modest decreases in production with a rookie QB at the helm.
Joe Mixon was the RB13 last season, and the historical data suggests that he is more likely to regress into the high teens than he is to become a league winning rusher with Joe Burrow on the team. There was no correlation between how good, or bad the new quarterback was when considering how well their running back performed. It might seem counterintuitive, but there is no visible difference in RB production whether Burrow is more like Deshaun Watson or Mitchell Trubisky.
Star WRs can work with young QBs, but everyone else cannot.
What do Steve Smith, Percy Harvin, Reggie Wayne, and DeAndre Hopkins have in common? They are all of the top-12 WR finishes in the last decade with a rookie quarterback leading their team. DeAndre Hopkins was the big winner, going from WR30 in 2016 to WR1 in 2017, but DeShaun Watson replaced Brock Osweiler. No receiver in Cincinnati demands the target share dominance that Hopkins did in Houston. As for the others, Smith improved from WR69 to WR7 when Cam Newton was the starter, Harvin improved from WR20 to WR8 when Christian Ponder took the reins, and Reggie Wayne improved from WR25 to WR12 thanks to Andrew Luck.
We need to take a second and consider how insane it is that the Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin connection made this list. Harvin averaged 6.3 catches and 71 yards in the 11 games that Ponder started in 2011, but he was also prolific in the running game, totaling 345 yards and 2 touchdowns, as well as a returner. There were only seven wide receivers who averaged more than 6.3 receptions per game in 2019 to give you a reference point.
Now that we’ve emerged from that historical reflection, we get back to the point that none of AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, or Tee Higgins are likely to be league-winning fantasy assets in 2020. The Bengals have too many decent options for Burrow to hone in on a single receiving option to pepper with targets. I’d much rather have Stefon Diggs, Michael Gallup, Marquise Brown, or Brandin Cooks at that point in the draft because historically rookie QBs cannot produce top fantasy production in their wideouts. Although not considered top options, at expert consensus WR28 and WR32, Green and Boyd are still being overvalued and don’t represent high-upside picks.
Don’t forget about Justin Herbert.
For those wondering, there was no difference between quarterbacks who started Week 1 and those who began later in the season. Even though Burrow projects to be the starter, there is no significant increase or decrease in production for either quarterbacks or other skill position players if the rookie sits for the first few games. In the last two seasons, we’ve had a sampling of quarterbacks who were immediate starters (Kyler Murray and Sam Darnold) and others who sat for the first few weeks (Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen). In almost every one of those cases, the running back and wide receiver positions finished worse with the rookie quarterback than they had the previous season. The only outliers were David Johnson finishing as the RB10 in 2018, but he only played one game in 2017 before Rosen arrived, and Jarvis Landry joined the Browns with Mayfield in 2018 and finished as the WR19.
In summary, it’s best to avoid the skill position players on the Bengals unless you can get them at a discount.