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Fantasy Football 2016: Jeremy Hill is being criminally undervalued

When a player on your favorite team is being undervalued in fantasy football, there’s no reason not to draft him.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals-Training Camp Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a disappointing 2015 campaign, Jeremy Hill is one of the more polarizing players in fantasy football. If last year, you were as optimistic as I was — and many others were — then you probably drafted him late in the first round of your fantasy draft, expecting him to pile on massive numbers and guide your fantasy team to a championship.

As we all know, Hill’s 2015 campaign was an utter disappointment for fantasy owners. While he solidified his reputation as a touchdown-scoring machine, Hill’s yards-per-carry average dropped from 5.1 in 2014 to 3.6 in 2015. As a result, the running back’s rushing yards-per-game average also dropped from 70.2 to 49.6. That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that he was essentially a non-factor in Cincinnati’s passing game.

But there’s a silver lining in all of this. Any non-Bengals fan who drafted Hill too early in 2015 most likely doesn’t want to touch him, and those who didn’t own him still understand that he was a frustrating player for any fantasy owner last season. As a result, most fantasy “experts” have knocked Hill down their rankings. NFL Network’s Michael Fabiano has Hill ranked as the 22nd-best running back on his board, behind players like the Redskins’ Matt Jones, the Dolphins’ Arian Foster and the Patriots’ Dion Lewis, among others, which is very low for a guy who was just over a year ago playing like the best running back in the entire league. And, this is a guy who leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns over the past two years.

As with the NFL Draft, groupthink plays a significant factor in fantasy football. As analysts generally came to the agreement that Andrew Billings was a first-round prospect prior to the Draft, when in all reality, every NFL club had a reason not to select him in the first round, fans took those analysts’ opinions as truth. In the same way, most — if not all — fantasy players will take those analysts’ opinions as truth, whether by selecting a certain player, avoiding a certain player or simply using a draft board created by someone other than the player managing his or her team.

2016 is a new year. Every team in the NFL is 0-0, and every team has an equal mathematical chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February 2017. In the same sense, every player is starting with a clean slate. The same should be applied to Hill.

Last season, most fantasy “experts” crucified Darren McFadden, citing him as an undraftable player. McFadden blew through his perceived ceiling to the tune of 1,089 rushing yards, 328 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Those aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, but it’s important to remember that nearly every so-called “expert” thought Joseph Randle would earn the starting job and didn’t think McFadden would even be a factor in Dallas.

Doug Martin, whose underwhelming 2013 and 2014 campaigns faced similar skepticism last year went on to rush for 1,402 yards. I distinctly remember hearing “experts” debate whether Martin’s backup, Charles Sims, was a better fantasy option than the starter last offseason. Devonta Freeman was also an afterthought heading into the season, and he blew the doors off of the fantasy world, tallying 1,061 rushing yards 14 total scores.

What’s the point in all of this? Groupthink in fantasy football is real, and it is the reason why Hill’s average draft position is 78.53 — right on the border of the eighth and ninth rounds — just a year after he was frequently coming off the board in the first round. Granted, a disappointing 2015 campaign also played a part in Hill’s fall, but it still doesn’t explain players like the aforementioned Jones, Foster and Lewis — as well as many others including, but not limited to Jay Ajayi, Latavius Murray, four defenses and a kicker — going higher on average in fantasy drafts. For all of Hill’s struggles, he’s still a huge red zone threat, and he has production that many others going ahead of him in drafts do not.

Reasons to be skeptical

Hill’s production is touchdown-dependent: How many times have you heard this statement? If you’ve read anything fantasy-related that includes the Bengals, the concept should be familiar. But the notion that Hill as a running back is touchdown-dependent is completely untrue. What should be said of hill is that his 2015 fantasy success was touchdown-dependent. “Experts” who knock Hill for being “touchdown-dependent” should also note that in 2014, the running back rushed for over 140 yards in four of his eight starts. Hill was the 10th-scoring running back in 2014, despite the fact that he was a rookie and didn’t earn the starting gig until halfway through the season. Sure, it’s likely the running back scores less touchdowns in 2016 than he did in 2015, but it’s also just as likely he gains more yards this year than he did last year. In what many considered a down year, Hill was still the 15th-scoring running back in fantasy. The 15th-scoring running back should be going much higher than the tail end of the eighth round in fantasy drafts.

The Bengals offense will take a step back: This statement might be even more common than the last, and like the former, it’s just a theory. Even in a devil’s advocate scenario in which Andy Dalton struggles after losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Bengals will still be reliant on the run game. In fact, I’d argue they’d be even more run-dependent. It might just be coincidence, but 10 of the 15 highest-scoring running backs from last season played on teams which finished with a record of 8-8 or worse, so in theory, if the Bengals take a step back, Hill’s production could potentially improve. And regardless of Cincinnati’s 2016 outlook, Hill is still a valuable red zone weapon; he’ll get red zone carries regardless of the Bengals’ win-loss record.

Reasons to be optimistic

The offensive line: While I think the tackle position will definitely take a step back in 2016, whether from a potential Andrew Whitworth regression (he’s human; he has to regress at some point, right?) or potential struggles from Cedric Ogbuehi getting accustomed to the nuances of becoming an NFL starter, I think the Bengals’ interior offensive line will be just as good as, if not better than the 2015 version. Russell Bodine can only get better at this point, and I’m optimistic things will begin to click for him in Year 3. Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler have been solid in their tenure, and they’re hitting their stride at age 27 and 26, respectively. Because the Bengals are so intent on running up the middle with Hill, it’s encouraging to think the interior of the offensive line could be even better next year than it has been in years past.

The fullback: As I mentioned on the The Orange and Black Insider, I think Ryan Hewitt’s extension indicates the Bengals’ commitment to re-establish the run game through the implementation of Hewitt as a run-blocker. Hill really struggled out of shotgun formations last season, but he was still fantastic when running behind Hewitt. Though opposing defenses know the Bengals will most likely run when Hewitt is on the field, they’ve consistently struggled to stop Hill — even with the knowledge that Cincinnati intends on running the ball. This is purely speculation, but I’m doubling down on my theory.

The schedule: Cincinnati will play seven games against defenses which surrendered 120+ rushing yards per game last season. Three of those opponents, including the Browns, allowed more than 120 rushing yards in 2014 as well, for what it’s worth. Many teams on the Bengals’ schedule look like they could be potentially vulnerable to the run, which is good news for a running back looking to get back on track.

My final pitch

If it sounds like I’m trying to convince you to draft Hill to your fantasy team, it’s because I’m trying to convince you to draft Hill to your fantasy team. Even if he disappoints in 2016, he’s worth a late eighth-rounder or early ninth-rounder. Hill’s ceiling is sky-high, and his floor is pretty high for a guy being drafted so late. Again, this is just my advice, so take it however you choose. But I’m feeling optimistic about Hill’s 2016 season, and I think you should too.