Is Joe Burrow a Top-5 Fantasy Football Quarterback for 2022?

Joe Burrow is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign that ultimately helped lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance. What's his fantasy outlook in his third NFL season?

Following a season-ending knee injury that abruptly ended his rookie campaign, Joe Burrow entered 2021 with uncertain expectations despite his high draft pedigree and a young, promising group of wide receivers.

Well, we know how that all worked out.

The Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback had about as good a sophomore season as you could possibly ask for, racking up 4,611 passing yards and 34 touchdowns on his way to an appearance in Super Bowl LVI.

He led the league in yards per attempt (8.9) and adjusted yards per attempt (9.0) among qualified starters, and he ranked seventh alongside fellow rising star Justin Herbert with 0.23 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (minimum 100 drop backs), which was more than double the league average (0.10).

The 25-year-old looks to have a bright future ahead of him, and expectations are high going into this season. Should we buy into Burrow taking another leap in fantasy football, or is his draft price getting too steep?

A Strong Supporting Cast

From a fantasy perspective, Burrow's efforts resulted in a QB8 finish, averaging just over 20 fantasy points per game alongside guys like Matthew Stafford and Dak Prescott.

According to average draft position (ADP) data, the public is quite bullish on Burrow. He's the fifth quarterback off the board in FanDuel best-ball drafts and the fourth quarterback taken in July NFBC drafts.

For context, that puts him behind the big three of Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Herbert, and then he goes right around the same range as Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.

The first thing that immediately stands out is that Burrow is easily the least productive rusher of that group, which means drafters are not only expecting him to duplicate last year's passing numbers but take them to the next level.

That said, there's some merit to this. Burrow will have another year under his belt with one of the best receiver corps in the league between Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and PFF ranks them as the best pass-catching group entering the season.

Chase wasted no time picking up where he and Burrow left off at LSU, already joining the elites at the position after ranking fourth in receiving yardage (1,455) -- a rookie record -- and third in receiving scores (13) on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The dynamic wideout helped his signal-caller's stat line by racking up the third-most yards after catch (651) behind only Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel.

Meanwhile, Higgins is no slouch after notching 1,091 yards in just 14 games, and Boyd complements the two with his low-aDOT role out of the slot.

Cincinnati also made it a point to revamp their offensive line, which was a weakness in 2021. While the quarterback deserves his share of the blame for sacks, Burrow led the league with a whopping 51, and the team had the second-worst adjusted sack rate allowed (9.1%), per Football Outsiders.

The Bengals took it upon themselves to sign three new starting linemen this offseason and are now projected as a top-eight unit, per PFF. Even if they don't improve quite that dramatically, Burrow's chances of staying upright should be vastly improved in 2022.

What Should We Realistically Expect in Year Three?

While all of this points to even better days ahead for Burrow, the truth is that predicting passing scores is a lot trickier than we'd like to think.

Burrow's touchdown rate leaped from 3.2% his rookie season to 6.5% last year, meaning he essentially doubled his efficiency in that department. Sure, we can attribute some of that to the addition of Chase and some natural progression in year two, but this was a sizable leap that ended up being the third-best mark in the NFL.

Regression is a very real possibility here. In a piece JJ Zachariason wrote in 2021, he noted just how unpredictable passing touchdowns are from season to season. In his research, he found that players with a touchdown rate of 7% or better regressed the following season, whereas players with rates of 3% or lower would always see improvement.

Burrow's marks don't quite hit those thresholds on the nose, but his jump in touchdown rate last season lines up, and regression would be the likelier outcome in 2022.

If that's the case, we need to bank on the Bengals letting their quarterback sling it more to have a realistic shot at improving on his 34 touchdowns. Cincinnati was middle-of-the-pack in passing play percentage last year, resulting in Burrow ranking just 15th in total pass attempts last season, averaging just 32.5 per game.

Many expect Burrow to throw more this season, and they clearly have the personnel to do so. But given they just had a successful run to the Super Bowl, it's easier to envision minor tweaks to their offensive philosophy rather than wholesale changes.

If those pass attempts don't see a significant bump, then we need to see Burrow run more, and that remains the biggest sticking point at his ADP. All five of the aforementioned signal-callers going before around Burrow logged at least 300 rushing yards in 2021, and that's not even including Jalen Hurts, who goes well after this group.

In Zachariason's previously mentioned work, he also found that rushing yardage is much more predictable from one year to the next, so we should feel pretty confident in these guys continuing to provide similar value with their legs.

Meanwhile, Burrow rushed for a ho-hum 118 yards in 2021, averaging just 2.5 attempts per game. He ranked 20th in rushing attempts at the position.

Now, it's worth remembering that he was coming off a serious knee injury, so a lack of running was to be expected the following campaign. Burrow accumulated over 100 rushing attempts in both his seasons as a starter at LSU, helping him to over 300 yards in each, so it's not like the ability isn't there.

Burrow also averaged more rushing attempts per game as a rookie (3.7), which is on par with Herbert.

All of this is to say that there's still loads to like about the Bengals' starter. He's surrounded by amazing talent, and possible bumps in pass attempts and/or rushing would be ways to combat any regression in year three.

But as someone going off the boards as the QB4 or QB5, it sure looks like Burrow's being drafted at his best-case scenario.

Joe Burrow 2022 Fantasy Football Projection

According to numberFire's model, Burrow projects as the QB9 with 4,546.5 passing yards, 30.7 touchdowns, and 7.4 interceptions on 582.0 attempts. It also tabs him for increased production on the ground with 61.7 rushes, 286.2 yards, and 2.4 scores.

Considering everything we've highlighted, this feels like a very fair line that gives slight boosts in both pass and rush attempts while scaling his touchdowns back a smidge. It also slashes his interceptions nearly in half after tossing 14 last year.

And yet, it's telling that he still shakes out as the ninth quarterback behind everyone mentioned above plus Tom Brady and Prescott. Stafford also lingers directly be him at roughly the same number of projected fantasy points.

Brady and Stafford are complete zeros when it comes to running, though, and Prescott's rushing took a dive in 2021, so his projection could be a tad high. I have no problem ranking Burrow ahead of the trio -- but let's remember that all three finished ahead of him last year and are going much later in drafts.

At the end of the day, could Burrow be a top-five quarterback? Absolutely.

But his ADP seems to be assuming that ceiling outcome, and if he doesn't run more, he isn't all that different from that Brady, Prescott, and Stafford grouping. And in terms of upside, it's worth reiterating that dual-threats Murray and Hurts are going after him and that's not even getting into guys like Russell Wilson or Trey Lance.

Despite Burrow's prowess as a real-life quarterback, when factoring in his market value, I'd prefer to draft the established rushing upside of Murray and Hurts, and Hurts specifically is going much later in FanDuel's best-ball formats.

However, if he's still available ahead of the Brady tier of your draft, that feels like the better spot to scoop up his high floor with the potential for more if everything really does break right.