Jesse Pantuosco

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Dose: Depth Chart Drama

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Much like Artie Lange in Elf, the Bengals sit on a throne of lies.

 

Most teams have submitted their initial depth charts and you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical. Jeremy Hill as the No. 1 back in Cincinnati? Fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette a co-starter beside underachievers Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon in Jacksonville? Willie Snead a mere third on New Orleans’ receiving depth chart? None of it makes much sense.

 

First off, let’s not take any of this for gospel. It’s grain-of-salt season and in the grand scheme of things, early August depth charts don’t amount to much. They’re a formality, an early skeleton of a football roster. It’s the alternate ending that only makes the director’s cut on Blu-ray.

 

I guess my official job title would be “fantasy football writer,” but here at Rotoworld, we’re really fantasy detectives, snooping around Twitter like the scene of a crime, hoping to find any clue that might guide us in our quest for the truth. In doing so, we have to present all the facts and at this juncture, practice reports from beat writers and early, bordering on aggressively-early depth charts are all we have to go on. So let’s all put on our Burt Macklin glasses and do some investigating.

 

In some cases, and this certainly rings true in Cincinnati, early depth chart listings are more like lifetime achievement awards than true renderings of what will ultimately occur once the season starts. As it stands now, Jeremy Hill is positioned as the Bengals’ first-team halfback ahead of backup Giovani Bernard and a lengthy list of third-teamers featuring Joe Mixon, Cedric Peerman, Tra Carson, Stanley Williams and Jarveon Williams.

 

That’s deceiving on a number of different levels. For one, the best Carson, Williams and Williams (it sounds like a law firm I just made up) can probably hope for are spots on the practice squad. Peerman’s roster chances are much better, though he’ll likely be restricted to special teams work on Sundays, leaving Hill, Bernard and Mixon as the primary ball-carriers.

 

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Bernard’s listing here also deserves an asterisk as he essentially plays a different position than Hill and Mixon. Gio is a pass-catcher through and through, a fact illustrated by his career-best 5.1 targets per game last season. He’ll see carries here and there, but not enough to truly threaten Hill and Mixon on early downs.

 

By now we all know the narrative surrounding Mixon. He’s a first-round talent who fell in the draft due to a troubling and highly publicized assault that occurred before his freshman year at Oklahoma. Given the Bengals’ history of taking on players with character concerns (Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict are two prominent examples), Mixon landing with Cincinnati seemed almost inevitable. With Bernard set in his role and Hill entering the last year of his rookie contract, pursuing Mixon on draft weekend seemed like a shrewd addition (potential PR nightmare notwithstanding) for a Bengals team that ranked 23rd out of 32 teams in yards per carry last season.

 

Hill’s fantasy stock has dipped steadily since peaking as a 1,000-yard rookie in 2014. He’s mustered a paltry 3.67 yards per carry over his last two seasons, only maintaining his faint RB2 status thanks to his penchant for vulturing goal-line touchdowns (20 rushing TDs since the start of 2015). He’s also been relatively durable, appearing in 47 of 48 games to begin his career.

 

Hill’s yard-per-carry average last season was actually a slight improvement from a year earlier, though it was heavily skewed by two monster outings against the 1-15 Browns. If we strike those two performances from the record, Hill’s average would drop from 3.78 yards per carry to 2.98. So essentially, Hill was Barry Sanders against Cleveland and Matt Asiata versus everyone else.

 

ProFootballFocus usually has a pretty good pulse on where players stand relative to their peers. Predictably, Hill graded poorly, particularly as a blocker (only six backs were worse), earning PFF’s 40th overall grade out of 58 qualifiers at running back. Some of the names ahead of him included Fozzy Whittaker, Travaris Cadet and T.J. Yeldon. That’s not exactly a murderers' row. It all screams “replace me” and the Bengals seemed to accomplish just that by selecting Mixon 48th overall in April’s draft.

 

Mixon seems to be the superior back by almost every measure, so what’s the holdup here? The most likely reason Mixon has been relegated to third string, at least initially, is because of his inexperience. He’s a raw 21-year-old whereas Hill, for all his warts, has 47 games of experience (49 if you include the postseason) and over 1,400 NFL snaps to draw upon.

 

Mixon’s conservative listing, though largely unhelpful to the fantasy community, may actually be the best thing for him. Not that he was lacking for motivation—surely Mixon is eager to let his play do the talking after his controversial tenure in Norman. But with Hill and to a lesser extent Bernard obstructing his path to lead status, he now has a tangible goal to work toward.

 

And as we’ve seen recently with both Leonard Fournette in Jacksonville and QB Deshaun Watson in Houston, teams aren’t interested in giving rookies handouts. Watson, Fournette and Mixon should all claim starting roles at some point this year, but why invite complacency by gifting them the job on Day 1? It’s the old stick-and-carrot technique. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Right now Mixon is still learning how to fish.

 

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In the interest of feeding my inner conspiracy theorist, let’s not overlook the truther element. There’s obviously some level of gamesmanship that goes on when creating these depth charts. As we’ve seen with Bill Belichick’s masterful manipulation of injury reports (like the time a perfectly healthy Tom Brady was listed as probable every week for six years), teams jump at the chance to throw us off the scent. The NFL’s commitment to “competitive advantage” has gotten increasingly out-of-hand with coaches going to great lengths to supply vague injury timetables and other misleading information during their press availability. So if you’re looking for a quick, no-assembly required conclusion to Cincinnati’s ongoing backfield saga, don’t hold your breath.

 

And perhaps Hill’s claim to the No. 1 spot, tentative as it may be, isn’t such a bad thing for fantasy owners. Anyone who watched Hill play last season knows he won’t last long as the starter even if he gets the nod in Week 1 (unfortunately for him, the Browns, his beloved punching bag, aren’t on the schedule until Week 4). But in the meantime, if the Bengals want to pretend that Hill is their true lead back, why stop them? If anything, the Hill narrative will scare owners off Mixon, potentially allowing his ADP to drop. Mixon may be a tough sell as a third-rounder but if he falls to the fourth or fifth due to workload concerns, sign me up.

 

 

Quick Hits: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was diagnosed with a blood clot in his ankle. He left the team but is hoping to return after a few days of bed rest … Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls split first-team carries during a mock game Monday at Seahawks’ training camp. Lacy is still widely expected to start Week 1, though Rawls’ draft stock in fantasy is starting to pick up steam … Paul Richardson has been operating ahead of Jermaine Kearse at Seahawks camp. Richardson came on strong late last season, leading the team with a career-high 83 yards in a playoff loss to Atlanta … A rally will be held in support of Colin Kaepernick outside NFL headquarters in New York on August 23. Film director Spike Lee promoted the rally on social media, though he wasn’t involved in planning or organizing it … The Jaguars placed Branden Albert on the reserve/retired list one day after the left tackle reneged on his retirement. Albert’s motivation for coming out of retirement was strictly so the Jaguars would move him to the retired list after previously classifying him under the “left team” designation. The Jaguars hold his rights should Albert actually decide to resume his playing career … Mike Kaye of First Coast News expects Chris Ivory to open 2017 as the Jaguars’ preferred short-yardage back. Ivory averaged a career-worst 3.8 yards per carry last year in his first season with Jacksonville … Anquan Boldin has been working primarily out of the slot at Bills camp. That’s no surprise as Boldin played just under 83 percent of his snaps in the slot last season when he led the Lions with eight touchdowns … James Conner returned to practice Tuesday after missing time with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder. The third-round rookie out of Pitt is the odds-on favorite to back up workhorse Le’Veon Bell this season … The trio of Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson and Jordan Reed have all been ruled out for Thursday’s preseason opener against the Ravens. Reed continues to deal with lingering toe soreness while Crowder and Doctson are both out with hamstring injuries … Browns WRs coach Al Williams was effusive in his praise of running back Duke Johnson, claiming Johnson catches passes as well as any of the team’s wideouts. If health permits (he’s yet to miss a game in the NFL), the third-year back should easily eclipse his career-high of 61 catches … Kareem Hunt continues to see first-team reps at Chiefs camp. The third-round rookie aims to push Spencer Ware for the starting job this summer … DeMarco Murray won’t suit up for Saturday’s preseason opener against the Jets after tweaking his hamstring last week. He’s been restricted to individual drills at practice, though coach Mike Mularkey doesn’t expect the injury to limit him for much longer … Jay Ajayi returned to a limited practice session on Tuesday. He missed about a week of action after suffering a concussion early in Dolphins camp … Robert Turbin has been a standout at Colts camp, according to beat writer Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. Turbin produced a career-high eight touchdowns last season while stealing goal-line work from veteran starter Frank Gore.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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