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Friday, April 4, 2008
Offseason Notebook: Bengals receiver troubles

By Scott Engel
ESPN.com

Last season, when Chris Henry was suspended for eight games, some fantasy players held onto the troubled wide receiver and waited for him to return, hoping he could provide the production that had made him the most coveted No. 3 NFL wideout in most leagues.

No one stepped up and made an impact while Henry was out, proving that it wasn't just the third option in the Cincinnati passing game that produced quality numbers -- it was Henry who truly flourished in that role. He caught nine touchdown passes in 2006, making him a great option in larger leagues, a good occasional starter and a fine emergency plug-in when injuries struck. Yet last year's layoff certainly seemed to affect Henry when he returned; he scored only twice in Cincinnati's final eight games.

Chad Johnson
Hard to figure which Johnson will show up in 2008.

Now Henry's future is bleak and murky after the Bengals waived him following his latest off-field incident this week. Coupled with the ongoing Chad Johnson fiasco and a shaky running game, the Bengals' offense is raising concerns among fantasy owners heading into next season. The team has focused on improving a disappointing defense during the offseason, but should we also be concerned about the offense heading into 2008? Cincinnati likely will use its first-round pick on a defensive player, and there are no major impact free agents available on the market.

Henry is done with the Bengals, and we'll have to wait and see how the league disciplines him and what team may be willing to take a chance on him in the future, so you can put aside his fantasy outlook until further notice. Cincinnati has no wide receivers left on the roster who can step in and contribute like he did, and any rookie they draft will face a certain adjustment period. Cincinnati did sign tight end Ben Utecht, and he can become a dependable third target for Carson Palmer, but more as a guy who can move the chains rather than make explosive plays.

Chad Johnson was inconsistent last year because he faced a lot of double-teaming, especially when Henry was out. If he ultimately decides to hold out at all this season, that could also affect his conditioning and production. The Bengals remain steadfast in their stance that they won't trade him, so an unhappy Johnson, facing extra defensive coverage again this season, could scare some fantasy owners off. You can't fully rely on Chad Johnson as a No. 1 fantasy wide receiver the way things are looking right now. Johnson scored six times last year, and all of his touchdown receptions came in four games, so you may see more of that type of erratic production next season. Opponents won't fear Utecht enough to stop gearing game plans around stopping Chad Johnson.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Whosyomomma figures to be the best receiver for Cincy again.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh benefits the most from Chad Johnson's presence in the lineup, but if his receiving partner holds out or disrupts the team at any point during the season to the point where he is disciplined, Houshmandzadeh is the one who could start seeing the double-teams, and his production would drop. If Johnson is in uniform when the regular season begins, Houshmandzadeh should remain a top-level fantasy wide receiver (112 passes for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007). Palmer will have to look to him often, because as it stands now, Chad Johnson won't always be open, and Palmer can't depend on his running game.

Rudi Johnson was banged up and often ineffective in 2007, and he was held to three touchdowns and 497 rushing yards. Kenny Watson filled in admirably at times, but I wouldn't trust him to carry a heavy load over a full season, and the team doesn't know what to expect from Chris Perry (ankle) and Kenny Irons (knee) as they both attempt to return from significant injuries. There has been speculation the team could be interested in Shaun Alexander if and when the Seahawks release him, but those have been nothing more than rumors.

So a lot of pressure will fall on Palmer to carry the offense. Even if Watson proves to be adequate or the team drafts a running back who can contribute, the Bengals will be most successful if the passing game drives the offense and opens up room for the running backs. Palmer was somewhat disappointing last year; he threw a career-high 20 interceptions and finished the season as the ninth-ranked quarterback in ESPN leagues with 221 points. He was unreliable late in the season, when fantasy players depend on him the most; he scored a total of 14 fantasy points in Weeks 13, 14 and 16. A 37-point outing in Week 2 boosted his overall totals and reflects his overall ups and downs from the statistical perspective (he outscored three weeks combined in one week). If he is needed to carry the offense next season, he may very well be erratic again.

The Chad Johnson and running back situations still have to work themselves out. For now, though, I would not view Palmer as a top-five quarterback, and Houshmandzadeh's outlook will be heavily linked to the Chad Johnson situation. I like Utecht as a sleeper, though, and the Bengals still have some time to sort things out with their top receiver and improve the running game. We'll also have to see how the offense is addressed in the draft. Right now, though, I'm not expecting stability from the Bengals' offense. If Johnson is a disruption and distraction during the season, which is possible, the situation could certainly hinder Houshmandzadeh and Palmer.

Offseason Mailbag

Gary (Honolulu): My points-per-reception (PPR) league allows us to keep two players from the previous season, and you lose your draft picks in the round you selected that player last year. I'm torn between keeping Joseph Addai (first-round pick), Tom Brady (third round) and Ryan Grant (free-agent pickup). Addai and Grant would give me a great running back duo at the cost of only a first-round pick, but I'd hate to give up Brady. But keeping Addai and Brady would leave me with only a late second-round pick, with no running back available the quality of Grant left. The scariest option is to go with Brady and Grant. I still get a fairly early first-round pick, but all of the stud running backs would be gone.

Engel:I think you have to forget the Brady/Grant keeper scenario right away. Addai will go in the first round to someone else if you toss him back into the player pool. Don't throw away a player who is worth the first-rounder you sacrifice him for. Addai will also continue to evolve as a pass-catcher and is a great PPR prospect. So it comes down to Brady and Addai. You want to keep Grant for peace of mind at running back, but no fantasy football owner goes into the season with complete peace of mind and usually doesn't find it all season. So you don't want to give up a fantasy superstar like Brady to make sure a need is filled, even though you have to sacrifice less with Grant. You won't get a quarterback of Brady's caliber in the third round, and with the loss of Brett Favre, Grant could be much less effective next season as he faces more defensive attention. Plus, running backs are more of a gamble than ever before, so anyone you take in the third round or even later could conceivably outperform Grant. You'll get no assurances by keeping Grant, and you lose one of the top two quarterbacks in fantasy football. Keep Addai and Brady, and take the best available running back with upside or a guy who can be somewhat reliable early in your draft.

Paul Miller (Apex, N.C.): I'm playing in a keeper league and I have Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Reggie Bush. Last season, Bush was a bust and, towards the end, Moss was almost hit or miss. I can keep one to three players, and I'm not sure whether I should hope Bush gets it together and ax one of my Patriot wide receivers, or keep my Patriots and try to get a decent running back in the fourth round of the draft. (I also have Marion Barber III, but I plan to cut him.)

Engel: I would certainly keep Moss, as he will have another big year, and you have to remember even the best wide receivers have quiet weeks and don't explode in every single game. I would lose Bush; you don't need to deal with the hope and frustration anymore and can get a more reliable guy in the draft. It would be a very close call between Barber and Bush, but the Patriots may be the only team that you can lean on with more than one key offensive player in fantasy, so retain Welker, too.

Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.