Fantasy Football: AFC North team breakdowns

With the fantasy football draft season right around the corner, I’ve decided to do a breakdown on the fantasy-relevant players on every team, division by division. You can check out the previous columns here:

NFC East                          AFC East

NFC South                      AFC South

NFC North

This column will cover the teams from the AFC North. The AFC North is a division with some terrible teams and some great fantasy football players. All comments are with respect to a 10-team league with standard scoring.

Cincinnati Bengals

QB: I don’t hate Andy Dalton as much as many people. He was one of the top quarterbacks in fantasy last year, finishing with over 4,000 yards, 33 touchdowns and a 88.8 quarterback rating.

Dalton about to throw a touchdown or an interception, there's no middle ground for Big Red.

Dalton about to throw a touchdown or an interception, there’s no middle ground for Big Red.

However, there are some major reasons for concern. His new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, has long been a run-first play-caller, and he’s made a lot of noise about wanting to lower Dalton’s pass attempts from 586 last season to closer to 400 this year. The other major negative with Dalton was his tendency to be either really good or really bad, a very annoying trait in a fantasy quarterback.

I think there’s no way Dalton throws the ball 200 times fewer this year, but 100 fewer attempts seems likely, especially since the Bengals have more talent at the running back position than they’ve had in a long time. Dalton won’t finish as a top five QB again this year, but he’ll likely finish at the back end of the top 10. He’s a great backup for a risky quarterback like RGIII or a serviceable starter if you wait on quarterback in a deeper league.

RB: Giovanni Bernard was one of the biggest fantasy steals last year, going from a virtual unknown to a RB2 in standard leagues. He showed good ability to run to the outside and catch balls out of the backfield.

Unfortunately, his value was hampered by The Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis stole more than 200 carries last year and Bernard still managed to produce. His upside is hurt since he likely won’t get carries near the end zone, but he’s a solid high-end RB2, or an RB1 in standard leagues. I’d expect about 1,000 yards rushing, about 5 rushing TDs, about 600 yards and couple more TDs receiving.

There’s been a lot of noise about rookie Jeremy Hill taking over the Green-Ellis role, but there’s one big problem there. Green-Ellis is still on the team, and if they’re paying him they’re going to use him. If Green-Ellis is cut or traded before the season than Hill is a valuable flex running back, but if not I think Green-Ellis hurts Hill’s value enough to make them both late-round fliers.

WR: AJ Green is a stud, you heard it here first folks. There’s some worry about how Hue Jackson’s love for running the football will impact Green’s value, but I’m not concerned. Jackson has also said that he wants to throw the ball deep more often than last year, and it’s not like Mohammed Sanu is getting those targets. For me, Green, Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant are all fairly close for WR3 this year.

Marvin Jones emerged as a valuable target for the Bengals in the red zone, but his stats were inflated by one monstrous game. He has some value as a WR3, especially if AJ Green were to get hurt, but his production is likely to be sporadic and touchdown dependent.

Mohammed Sanu has made some sleeper lists, but I can’t see him getting targeted with enough frequency to make an impact in fantasy outside of an injury to Green.

TE: The Bengals, much like the Colts and the Eagles, will employ a two-headed monster approach at tight end with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Eifert could be a top 10 tight end if something were to happen to Gresham, but don’t hold your breath, at least not during this season.

D/ST: The Bengals lost pass rusher Michael Johnson to free agency and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to the Vikings, but they look poised to be a top five fantasy defense again this year. They’ll gain Geno Atkins and Leon Hall back from injury, and rookie Darqueze Dennard should step in and improve the secondary immediately. If you want defense that seems likely to be a stud again this year, the Begnals should be one of your top targets.

Pittsburgh Steelers

QB: Anyone who watched Roethlisberger rumble around last year knew he was over the hill. Look for his decline to continue this year.

Big Ben has battled nagging injuries for the last few seasons, and that will likely continue. His only proven wide receiver is Antonio Brown, and the Steelers will likely decrease his attempts as Le’Veon Bell takes over more of the offensive burden.

Roethlisberger is a great NFL quarterback, but he’s mostly irrelevant for standard leagues except as a bye-week starter. He’d only be a starter in the deepest of fantasy leagues.

RB: I feel about Le’Veon Bell the exact opposite of how I feel about C.J. Spiller. Bell helped me salvage my season last year, but he really wasn’t  very good. He weighs over 240 pounds but he had a lot of trouble fighting through contact and he’s also not particularly quick. Check this comparison out:

Player A ran for 860 yards at a rate of 3.5 yards per carry and 8 rushing TDs to go along with 399 receiving yards in 13 games.

Player B ran for 950 yards at a rate of 3.6 yards per carry and 11 rushing TDs to go along with 366 receiving yards in 15 games.

Player A was Le’Veon Bell. Player B was Trent Richardson in 2012.

I’m not saying Bell will fall off a cliff like Richardson, but I’m awfully concerned. I wouldn’t be willing to take him before the end of the third round as a RB2 at the earliest, which means he likely won’t end up on any of my teams this year.

If you do draft Bell, you should make sure to pick up LeGarrette Blount, who actually played very very well with the Patriots last year. He’s a premium handcuff with a chance to vulture a couple goal line TDs over the course of the season.

WR: Antonio Brown is  my number 6 receiver, ahead of guys like Jordy Nelson and Julio Jones. He is a PPR monster who can catch balls all over the field, including in the red zone. Anyway, who else is Roethlisberger going to throw to? Brown will be one of the most consistent performers at his position this year and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t finish as a top 10 WR.

Steeler's games are worth watching just for Antonio Brown.

Steeler’s games are worth watching just for Antonio Brown.

Other than Brown, the guy I’m most interested in is rookie Martavis Bryant. He’s big, fast, and he looks poised to have a great training camp. Don’t be shocked if he wins the WR2 job outright and finishes as a reliable flex receiver. He’s currently going very late in drafts, only adding to his appeal.

TE: Heath Miller is just another TE. If you wait on tight end, he’s a fine guy to grab at the end of a draft. He will be very good some weeks when he happens to catch two touchdowns and very bad other weeks when he happens to catch two passes. Don’t expect a top seven guy.

D/ST: The Steelers hit a home run in the draft, improving their team immediately with the additions of Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. They’re one of my sleeper defenses for this year and I like them to finish in the top eight at the position.

Cleveland Browns

QB: God forbid you have to start a Brown’s quarterback this year. So far, the Browns look poised to start the season with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. Despite some success last year, Hoyer isn’t interesting in the least for fantasy.

His brief period of fantasy relevance can be mostly attributed to having Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator and Josh Gordon to catch deep balls and gain yards after the catch. Given that they’re both gone now, Hoyer is irrelevant for fantasy.

Manziel is interesting, especially if he beats Hoyer for the starting job. I talked about JFF here, and I still think he has a chance to be this year’s 2012 RGIII. He’s currently going undrafted, but he’s certainly worth a late-round flier, even if he isn’t starting week one.

RB: The Browns signed Ben Tate, this offseason’s “star,” free agent RB, presumably to be their starting running back. Tate has shown some flashes of elite talent in the past, but years of injuries seem to have taken their toll. Last year he looked perfectly ordinary with the Texans.

However, if Tate gets the majority of the carries, ordinary is just fine in fantasy football. It’s not like the Browns are going to throw it up to Miles Austin and Nate Burleson a lot. Tate also will have to contend with rookie Terrance West for carries.

West had an amazingly productive season last year playing in the lesser FCS, gaining more than 2500 yards rushing on over 400 attempts. That huge workload worries me, and I doubt he would have been nearly as impressive in the SEC. He’s a late-round flier for me, while Tate is a flex RB or a RB2 in a deep league.

If you’re looking for a late round running back with a ton of upside, Isaiah Crowell is your guy. His character concerns are definitely huge red flags, but last we saw he was one of the most talented running backs in college football, and it’s not like he’d have to beat out a stud for the job. Given Tate’s injury history, Crowell could be a sneaky great pick.

WR: With Josh Gordon’s most recent arrest, it would be surprising if he plays for the Browns again, let alone plays this season. Consequently, Andrew Hawkins will likely be the Browns number 1 wide receiver. Hawkins flashed a little bit of potential  as a quick slot receiver with the Bengals, and I think he’s a sneaky wide receiver three this season with the potential to be a high-end flex player.

The only other player with any fantasy relevance is Miles Austin. You could do worse than a late round pick, and as a rule I prefer to bet on veterans having come back seasons over rookies. You’ll likely only get eight games out of him max, but if he becomes the number one option again those could be eight flex-quality games. He’s currently going undrafted, so it’s not like you’ll have to give up much to get him.

TE: Jordan Cameron shocked the fantasy world, finishing the season as one of the best tight ends in fantasy football last year. Don’t expect much to be different this year. The Browns lost Norv Turner, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Cameron’s targets skyrocket with the loss of Josh Gordon, especially in the red zone. If you can’t get Jimmy Graham or Julius Thomas, Cameron is the next tight end I’d target.

Jordan Cameron is big, fast, and young. There isn't much to dislike about him!

Jordan Cameron is big, fast, and young. There isn’t much to dislike about him!

D/ST: The Browns were actually a pretty decent fantasy defense last year, and they added Justin Gilbert, Donte “Hitner” Whitner and Karlos Dansby. If you wait on defense, this is a defense you should be targeting.

Baltimore Ravens

QB: I can’t stand Flacco. As a 49ers fan, it was infuriating to get beaten in the Super Bowl by a mediocre quarterback who managed to play like Joe Montana for a few games in January. Flacco came back to earth last season, and he’ll likely stay grounded.

He was the 19th best quarterback last season, and there aren’t  a lot of reasons for optimism. He won’t be worse than that, so he’s valuable in a 2 QB league, but otherwise he’s worthless. I’d rather take a guy with more upside, even someone like Geno Smith or Sam Bradford. Find your fantasy QB elsewhere this season.

RB: Oh Ray Rice. He followed up the worst season of his career with the worst offseason of his career. Rice looked old and slow last year, averaging a paltry 3.1 YPC, having only rushed for 20+ yards once in 214 carries. He also caught the fewest balls for the fewest yards since his rookie season. I think Rice is in the midst of a Shaun Alexander-esque sudden decline into retirement. I am not interested whatsoever this season.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, backup Bernard Pierce looked just as bad. However, he was one of the only Ravens backs not to get arrested this offseason, and he’s still young. I’d rather have Pierce than Rice, but even Pierce is a RB4 at best.

WR: Torrey Smith is one of my favorite receivers this year. He’s a bona fide deep threat who somehow only scored four times last year despite gaining over 17 yards per reception. That’s likely to regress towards a mean closer to seven TDs as Smith enters his contract year and he continues to improve as a receiver.

The Raven’s other Smith, Steve Smith, isn’t nearly as exciting. He looked slow last year, unable to get open on deep routes any more. He should help pull some coverage off of Torrey, but I don’t think Steve Smith has much upside in fantasy football anymore.

The only other player to watch is Marlon Brown. He had a few big games last year, and he’s worth a late pick in deeper leagues.

TE: Opinions on Dennis Pitta vary widely. Some have him ranked as high as the fifth tight end, saying that the loss of Ed Dickson to steal targets and the addition of Gary Kubiak, known league-wide for feeding the ball to his tight ends, will make Pitta a star. Others are concerned that he just isn’t that talented and he looked slower, somewhat understandably, upon his return from a major hip injury last season.

I like Pitta, but he’s going too high for me. I think he’ll probably finish as a top 10 TE, but he’ll likely be streaky and a little bit touchdown dependent. I wouldn’t begrudge taking him around the 8th-9th round, as the 8th or so tight end off the board, but he’ll likely go higher than that.

D/ST: The Ravens defense disappointed many last year, finishing as only the 15th best fantasy defense. There is some reason for optimism though, as the addition of C.J. Mosley alone should make a big difference. If you wait until the last round to grab a defense, the Ravens wouldn’t be a bad bet for a bounce-back season, but I like the Browns better.