Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals Start ‘Em, Sit ‘Em: Players To Target Include Jerome Ford, Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, and Others

Who are some of the fantasy-relevant players you should be looking to start in the Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals matchup in Week 18?

The Cleveland Browns‘ fantasy outlook breaks down QB Joe Flacco’s historic run, while the Cincinnati Bengals‘ preview expresses long-term fantasy football optimism for their receivers.

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals

  • Spread: Bengals -6
  • Total: 38.5
  • Browns implied points: 16.3
  • Bengals implied points: 22.3

The Browns have locked in the No. 5 seed in the AFC and have nothing to play for. With that in mind, you’re not playing any of their regulars with any confidence, be it in a DFS or season-long setting.

The Bengals are one of two .500 teams that cannot qualify for the postseason, so they carry some playing-time risk.

Quarterbacks

Joe Flacco: People questioned if Flacco was simply beating up on lesser competition. People questioned if Flacco was being carried by WR Amari Cooper’s contested catches.

People got their answers last week against the Jets in a game Flacco played without Cooper and, for an extended period of time, without Elijah Moore. All he did was light up the Jets for 309 yards (fourth straight 300-yard game) and three touchdowns (multiple TD passes in all five starts this season).

MORE: Can Joe Flacco Win Comeback Player of the Year?

Betting against Flacco (third-most passing yards ever for a player in his first five games with a team: 1,616) at this point is dangerous, but he has officially been ruled out for this week. The veteran is live for those of you playing in postseason contests, he’s clearly a nice fit for what this offense wants to do in support of their elite defense.

Elite. Joe Flacco. Get it?

Editor’s note: Flacco will not play for the Browns in Week 18, as Jeff Driskel will get the start.

Running Backs

Jerome Ford: The 2022 fifth-round pick filled in admirably for Nick Chubb, with his versatility piquing my interest. With all the reporting surrounding Chubb’s recovery hinting at optimism, Ford profiles as one of 2024’s most valuable handcuffs as opposed to someone set to open the season with standalone value.

Chubb averaged 18.6 touches per game from 2021-22, leaving little meat on the bone for a secondary option to hold value in an offense that will have question marks under center.

Joe Mixon: The Bengals have an out in Mixon’s contract after this season, and I can’t help but wonder if they use this game to see what fifth-round rookie Chase Brown can do.

Mixon has been valuable since the bye (top-15 RB in four of his past five and no worse than a low-end RB2 in eight of 10 games over that stretch). Thus, we have to pencil him in as a fantasy starter unless the Bengals suggest that he won’t be featured this week.

This is example one of a million why your fantasy league should be wrapped up prior to Week 18. If I have Mixon, I’m playing him and pivoting if news surfaces, as opposed to the other way around.

As for Brown, he has caught multiple passes in four straight games, a positive development to balance out the fact that his carry count has dipped in four straight. Mixon was RB27 when these teams first met, and that is the neighborhood I’d rank Brown in should we get word that his role will be expanded in the season finale.

Wide Receivers

Amari Cooper: In his second season with Cleveland, Cooper set a career-high in receiving yards (1,250), averaging a career-high 17.4 yards per catch in the process. It’s that last part that will drive the 2024 analysis.

  • Two seasons with Cleveland: 16.1 ypc
  • Last two seasons with Dallas: 12.4

An increase in splash plays rarely increases for a player as he ages, but there is no denying that Cooper’s downfield production and ability to excel in contested situations (13th-highest contested catch rate this season) look sustainable.

I’ll be reacting to the Browns’ QB situation and the fantasy industry. If his franchise record-breaking Week 16 results in inflation around Cooper’s stock next season, I’ll likely be off of him. But if the concerns at the QB position and age decline drag his ADP down? Sign me up.

Ja’Marr Chase: All things considered, this season could have been worse for Chase managers. Assuming he plays at least a decent role on Sunday, he’s a good bet to clear 100 catches and 1,200 yards — numbers that aren’t easy to come by when your starting QB misses significant time.

Unless we are told otherwise, I’d expect Chase to play on Sunday, with any minor dip in playing time being offset by playing against some reserves. Chase’s stock as an elite fantasy receiver is safe, and he will be drafted as such this summer — he’s worth it.

Tee Higgins: With four missed games already on his ledger this season, it’s hard to envision Higgins being heavily involved this weekend after a game in which he sat for an extended period with a hamstring injury.

This hasn’t been a completely lost season for the Bengals star (four top10 finishes), but with five finishes outside of the top 75 at the position — including a zero-point effort in the opener against these Browns on eight targets — he certainly has failed to live up to preseason expectations.

The soon-to-be 25-year-old isn’t a top-30 receiver for me this week with all of the moving pieces, but Higgins is someone that I guarantee you I will have ranked higher than consensus heading into the 2024 season (check out the Tuesday podcast for a way-too-early 2024 Mock Draft!).

Tyler Boyd: Despite Chase and Higgins missing time at various points this season, Boyd hasn’t had a usable game since the middle of November, and I don’t think that changes this week.

MORE: PFN’s FREE NFL Playoff Predictor

For 2024, Boyd remains a low-end depth piece. There is a path for him to carve out a niche role in an offense that rebounds with Joe Burrow back under center and that keeps him rosterable. However, the volume simply isn’t high enough when this offense is at full strength to consider him anything close to a weekly option.

Tight Ends

David Njoku: The backup QBs in Cleveland unlocked the version of Njoku that we’ve been begging for, and it allowed him to blow past his career highs across the board. Per the Week 18 Cheat Sheet:

  • 81 catches — hadn’t eclipsed 80 targets since 2018
  • Six TDs — his previous career high was four scores
  • 882 yards — his first season north of 639

The physical tools are certainly in place for a player who was drafted in the first round back in 2017. My concern stems from an underwhelming start to the season with Deshaun Watson under center, as that figures to be how the 2024 season opens as well.

I have Njoku penciled in as a top-12 option at the position, but he’s not one that I’m overextending for and likely one that I don’t land, given how much his stock has risen over the past month and a half.

Trending Start/Sit Searches

Did you know that we have a Start/Sit Optimizer here at Pro Football Network? It’s completely free to use, and it allows you to enter up to six players to find the best option to plug into your starting lineup.

It also allows us to see the most popular trending searches. We’ve jotted some of them down here to help provide some clarity.

Should You Start Jerome Ford or Khalil Herbert?

The Chicago Bears are playing out the string, but they haven’t been shy in loading RB Khalil Herbert up with as much volume as he can handle, and I prefer that role over that of Ford for a team that is simply trying to stay healthy for the playoffs.

Projecting another 20+ touch game for Herbert is a bit optimistic, but he’s the better bet for 15 touches, and that’s enough.

Should You Start Tee Higgins or Christian Watson?

All signs point to Green Bay Packers WR Christian Watson playing this week, and in a spot like this that features two risky receivers, give me the player of the team that is motivated. Watson is far from perfect, but he did score in three straight games before the hamstring injury. That gives me hope for him as a Flex option.

Looking to make a trade in your fantasy league? Having trouble deciding who to start and who to sit? Setting DFS lineups? Check out PFN’s Free Fantasy Football Trade Analyzer, Start/Sit Optimizer, and DFS Lineup Optimizer to help you make the right decision!

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