Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Who will be the third receiver in Cincinnati's potent aerial attack?
Let's start with what we know: It won't be Chris Henry for the first half of the 2007 season. The oft-troubled wideout was suspended for the first eight games for violations of the NFL's personal conduct policy. It won't be easy for the Bengals to replace Henry, one of the best No. 3 receivers in the NFL. He has caught 15 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons.
The reason we're even discussing a No. 3 receiver is because Henry has made the third receiver a major weapon in the Cincinnati passing game. He's a major red zone weapon, as evidenced by his seven scores inside the opposing 20-yard line last year. He's also a big downfield threat. In 2006, Henry averaged 16.8 yards per catch, with nine catches of 20 or more yards and five of 40 or more yards. Henry has the talent to start on many other NFL teams, and he's a luxury for the Bengals as a third receiving option.
No other non-starting wide receiver on the Cincinnati roster can compare to Henry in terms of pure ability. Listed at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds with above-average speed and excellent leaping ability, he presents a serious dilemma for opposing defenses. Opponents have to concern themselves with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh first, leaving Henry to face nickel backs or find soft spots in zone coverages. The leading candidates to replace Henry during the season's first half are Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman. Perry is listed at 6-3, 208 pounds, but doesn't have Henry's speed. Chatman is fast and capable of making big plays, but he checks in at 5-8, 183 pounds, and won't be a factor in the red zone. The Bengals have two players who can spell Henry together, but neither can post the same type of totals alone. This competition won't produce a quality fantasy draft choice.
In June, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported Perry had the early edge in the race for the job. Perry played only two games in 2006 before hip surgery ended his season. He has been cleared medically to return to practices, although Marvin Lewis said Perry was still on the comeback trail. Perry had been impressive on special teams in his rookie year of 2005, and the Bengals were planning to use him more on offense last season before he was injured.
Perry is strong and has good ball skills, but his route running needs work and he lacks experience as a receiver at the pro level. The Bengals will give him the chance to succeed, though, and he can become a viable red zone target and possession receiver on key passing downs. He can certainly fit well in the Cincinnati offense, but he's not going to rival Henry's production, nor will he challenge defenses the way Henry can. Perry will snag a few touchdown passes, but won't be worth a draft choice in most fantasy leagues.
Chatman appeared in only three games last season because of a groin injury, but he is expected to be ready for training camp. He has the experience and explosiveness Perry lacks, and he runs smooth routes, can get loose for big gains and can gain yards after the catch. Unfortunately, he's too small and can be neutralized by physical defenders. Chatman caught 49 passes for 549 yards and four touchdowns for the Packers in 2005, when he was often used as a third receiver. Those type of numbers don't make him worthy of a draft choice in fantasy leagues.
Then there are the long shots to replace Henry. Reggie McNeal was a rookie in 2006 and spent the season making the conversion to wide receiver after playing quarterback in college. Bennie Brazell, another 2006 rookie, missed his first pro season with a knee injury, and Glenn Holt, an undrafted free agent, was used mostly on special teams. Skyler Green is another small speedster. It's hard to envision any of them moving up on the depth chart. Perry has more promise and experience in the Cincinnati offense, and Chatman is a four-year veteran.
Look for Perry to win the job in the preseason, but Chatman to still be a factor. Instead of challenging defenses with the trio of Johnson, Houshmandzadeh and Henry, expect the Bengals to use Perry and Chatman in tandem, depending on the situation. In the red zone and on third downs that call for shorter passes, Perry should be a featured option. In situations that call for longer plays downfield, Chatman will get his chances to catch some deep balls. He'll also appear often in four-receiver sets.
Using a combination of Perry and Chatman, the Bengals should adequately be able to spell Henry until he returns. Perry will see the field more, especially when you consider he is an asset as a run-blocker. Neither player, however, will impress fantasy leaguers during the season's first half. On the other hand, Henry's absence will also mean some extra catches for Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, which will benefit their owners more than owning Perry or Chatman could.
Don't expect the absence of Henry to affect the production of Carson Palmer in a major way, either. He's one of the smartest quarterbacks in the game and will have an entire preseason to adjust to a Henry-less existence.
Once Henry returns, fantasy owners should be very skeptical about using him. Missing half a season can affect a player's conditioning, and Henry will have trouble getting into the flow of the offense when he returns. Botton line: When Cincinnati's top two wideouts come off the board in fantasy drafts, you should simply forget that there are any other Bengals pass-catchers.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.