The AFC North is one of the more interesting divisions in the NFL, considering all four teams should remain relatively competitive. All four teams bring above average defenses to the table, and given the weather that the Midwest sees in winter – especially Northeast Ohio – it should make for some ugly football games. It will not all be ugly though, so let’s go ahead and comb through this division and see what each of these teams offers from a fantasy perspective.
Joe Flacco – Even though Joe Flacco is praised for being a Super Bowl Champion quarterback, he has never really put up much in the way of numbers. When the Ravens are winning they are playing sound all-world caliber defense, running the football, and using that to set up their passing game. Flacco is coming off of a season in which he posted a 73.1 QB rating and threw three more interceptions than TDs. He reportedly has made some fundamental changes in his mechanics in an effort to become more efficient. Now Flacco has never missed a game coming into his seventh year in the NFL and although the Ravens have helped him out a bit with the addition of Steve Smith it is hard for me to get too excited about a guy who has never throw for over 4000 yards in six seasons, and has seen sub-60% completion percentages the past three years, even if he does have a Super Bowl ring.
Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce – This backfield could prove to be very ugly in 2014. With Rice being suspended for the first two games, Bernard Pierce figures to start those games with Justin Forsett mixing in as a COP back, and it is up to Pierce to prove he is capable of being the Raven’s featured back the rest of the season. That seems pretty ambitious considering Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry last year on 152 totes. Now the implementation of new OC Gary Kubiak’s one-cut zone-blocking running attack could prove to work in Pierces favor as that style of offense seems to suit him better as he is indeed a one cut downhill runner. The system doesn’t however seem to be Ray Rice’s cup of tea as he operates better in space and is a jump-cut machine which can convolute a zone-blocking scheme. For my money I will take Bernard Pierce’s 2.9 2013 YPC over Ray Rice’s 3.1 as he has the fresher legs and is a much better fit for the new system making him a borderline RB2/3 if he can use the first two games to take control of the Raven’s feature back job.
Torrey Smith – Torrey Smith seemed primed for a breakout year last year and he didn’t completely disappoint, although a lot of us who drafted him as a WR1 couldn’t have been too thrilled with his 65-1128-4 2013 line. The fact is that Smith ran a whole lot of low-percentage routes last year and being the only real weapon Baltimore’s WR corps had to offer, making the Steve Smith acquisition a plus for him so defenses aren’t so honed in on stopping Torrey. He eclipsed the 100 yard mark for a game only twice last year, but with Gary Kubiak’s X receiver-friendly offense coming to town, Torrey Smith will play a more versatile role within the offense and should see a whole lot of targets. With Smith’s ADP still in the 6th round, he could prove to be one of the top value picks of 2014.
Steve Smith – In 2013, as top dog in Carolina, Smith was only able to muster up 64 catches and 4 TDs while he averaged a career-low 11.6 yards per reception. At 35 years old Smith has managed to stay relatively healthy as he hasn’t played in less than 14 games in a season since he missed all of 2004, but the fact remains Smith’s game is definitely declining sharply. Though Smith’s competitiveness and toughness should rub off on his teammates thus making the Raven’s a better football team, I do not foresee him having the same impact on fantasy teams, making Smith a WR5/6 for me.
Dennis Pitta – I am a big Dennis Pitta fan. He played in only 4 games last year as he spent most of 2013 on the I.R. with a hip issue, but he says he feels 100%. Just like with Torrey Smith and his X receiver position, Kubiak’s offense is very TE-friendly also, as we saw Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels both be monster parts of what the Texan’s tried to do offensively under Kubiak. Pitta, also like Smith, will be used in a number of ways including in the slot and out of the backfield at times. He is a great talent and the volume should be there this year for Pitta. He should spend 2014 competing with Torrey Smith for the Raven’s team lead in targets, receptions and receiving TDs making him a steal at his current ADP and a high-upside TE1.
Andy Dalton – Ugh. I have always struggled within myself to fight the feelings I have for NFL football players as people, and not let it affect my fantasy drafts. Andy Dalton is just one of the guys I cannot stand to even look at for too long before he just inexplicably pisses me off. Dalton just inked a shiny new 6 year $96M contract and is coming off of his best year as he completed 62% of his passes for 4296 yards and 33 TDs. I firmly believe that if Dalton and his stupid red hair didn’t have A.J. Green to throw the football to – his ENTIRE pro career – he would be in the Blaine Gabbert conversation by now. But the fact remains he DOES have Green which keeps him as a high-end QB2, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Giovani Bernard – Gio’s fantasy stock has been up and down this summer as he was anointed the Bengal’s starting running back and seemed to be a lock for 300 touches in Hue Jackson’s extremely run-heavy offense until people got a look at rookie Jeremy Hill’s skills and predictions surfaced of him siphoning 10-15 carries per game from Gio, including goal-line work. Although not terribly efficient in 2013 at 4.06 YPC, Gio has taken every first-team snap throughout Cincinnati’s preseason – in all scenarios – and with plenty of totes to go around, Gio is still a candidate for 300 touches in my mind making him a second or third round RB2 with RB1 potential.
Jeremy Hill/Benjarvus Green-Ellis – Amazingly “The Law firm” is still in the conversation with talented rookie Jeremy Hill to play second-fiddle to Giovani Bernard as the “big back” in Cincinnati’s offense. Green-Ellis, 29 years old and now dealing with a hip, averaged a paltry 3.4 YPC as he trudged his way to 756 yards on 220 carries in 2013 and offers zilch in the passing game. Before the injury Green-Ellis was running with the twos in preseason and Hill with the threes. That will change come the regular season as Hill should have a bit of stand-alone value as he could see those 10-15 carries per game and vulture some TDs, but for me his real value is him being Gio’s unequivocal handcuff.
A.J. Green – Green has been a model of consistency since entering the NFL in 2011 as he has posted three straight 1000 yard seasons and reeled in 7, 11 and 11 TDs in years 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. At 6’ 4” 207 pounds and in possession of some of the greatest ball-skills I have ever seen, Green is a master of taking lemons and making lemonade as he has been bailing out Andy Dalton, grabbing up his off-time, off-target wobblers his whole career. Though he remains an elite top-5 fantasy WR in all formats, I believe if Green had a half-way competent QB throwing him the football we are jockeying him and Calvin Johnson for the rights to best WR in the NFL. He is that talented.
Tyler Eifert/Jermaine Gresham – I was once very high on Jermaine Gresham as he has always had the physical tools to be an elite move tight end in the NFL, he just never panned out and I am not sure he ever got a real chance to prove it and definitely won’t now with the Bengals spending a 2013 first-round pick on Tyler Eifert. Eifert averaged 11.4 yard per reception last year in limited duty and remains the only Cincinnati TE even close to my fantasy radar. With Marvin Jones out until at least week 5, Eifert figures to occupy the slot in his absence thus running more routes and hanging on to a bit of TE2 relevance.
Brian Hoyer / Johnny Manziel – This QB competition has been the epicenter of the sports world most of the summer and it concluded after the Brown’s second preseason game with Brian Hoyer being named the starter. Hoyer wasn’t exactly lighting it up in up in the preseason and completed an ugly 59.4%of his passes in 2 and ¼ games for the Browns last season though he did produce a 5:3 TD to interception ratio. With Josh Gordon’s seemingly imminent season-long suspension on the horizon, a glaring lack of talent at the position behind Gordon, limited experience in 5 year-long NFL career and a run-heavy base offensive philosophy, Hoyer will be a bottom-of-the-barrel QB2. Now if Brian Hoyer loses his started job, whether it be from injury or ineffectiveness, Manziel’s fantasy outlook is far more promising, mainly because of the legs. Running QBs are like gold in fantasy football and even though ideally Cleveland would like to see Johnny play more from the pocket, he is a rookie and his instincts to run are going to take over at times until the Browns can break him of that. For now Hoyer is the guy in Cleveland but if JFF is thrust into the gig he could potentially provide some serious 2012 RGIII like production, making him worth taking a late round flier on and stashing him.
Signing after practice. I’m excited to be a Brown. We’re working hard to turn this thing around for u guys Cleveland. pic.twitter.com/NQR6T3XKdX
Ben Tate / Terrance West – Although the Browns plan to run the ball a whole lot, giving ample opportunity for both of the lead backs in Cleveland, Ben Tate is still the clear-cut fantasy choice in this backfield. Tate is likely to see 20+ carries per game as they are committed to running the rock and has averaged 4.75 YPC through two preseason games. The issue with Tate is his injury history as he had a lot of trouble staying healthy as a backup in Houston, making rookie Terrance West an interesting guy considering he should see around 10 carries per game weekly and if Tate were to miss any time, would become an absolute bell cow and flirt with RB1 status.
Josh Gordon – Unfortunately with a lot of unknowns regarding the situation, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about the 2013 NFL receiving leader. If Gordon were not facing a potentially year-long suspension he would be one of the first 5 WRs of the board but since he is, he is merely a guy you should just avoid altogether or roll the dice and take a mid to late round flier on the tremendously talented young wideout. Though he could turn out to be a wasted pick, I’m growing more and more fond of the idea of taking the risk and hoping to be able to insert the elite WR in your lineup half way through the season. That could prove to be huge for your fantasy team down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Andrew Hawkins – Hawkins played in only 8 games with Cincinnati last year and showed pretty well – considering his QB – as he averaged 16.6 yards per reception and scored twice. Now healthy, and figuring to be the top dog of the Josh Gordon-less WR corps, the shifty jitterbug could prove to have some nice value as a 12th or 13th round flier as he figures to see a bunch of targets as Brian Hoyer looks to get rid of the ball quick and Hawkins will a lot of the time serve as Hoyer’s hot read. Though he is much more valuable in PPR leagues as 75-80 receptions seems to be a real possibility if he can stay healthy, Hawkins definitely offers some sleeper appeal in standard leagues.
Jordan Cameron – Another former basketball player playing NFL football, Jordan Cameron broke out last season with an 80-917-7 line in 2013. Cameron stated the 2013 season off red hot as he reeled in 30 receptions for 360 yards and 4 TDs through the first four games of the season and although still productive week to week, tailed off a bit as the season wore on. Cameron should prove to be a great value in the 5th round as he promises to be a target-monster in the Browns offense remains devoid of a whole lot of talent from a pass-catching standpoint.
Ben Roethlisberger – Even though as a Browns fan I am supposed to hate this guy, I just cannot help but admire him as I believe he is one of the toughest players in the NFL considering all the injuries he has played though in his career, and the fact that he has played well through them. Roethlisberger attempted a career high 584 passes last year, a product of both Todd Haley’s pass-heavy attack with new no-huddle and up-tempo notes, and that the Steelers defense wasn’t so Steelers-like as they ranked in the middle of the road in a lot of defensive statistics in 2013. I think Big Ben could be in store for his best statistical season in his career with the Steelers young O-line promising to be more cohesive, a strong running-game, and a healthy security blanket of a TE Heath Miller, allowing me to finally put Roethlisberger in the low-end QB1 conversation confidently.
Antonio Brown – After finishing 2nd in the NFL last year in both receptions and receiving yards, there really isn’t a whole lot not to like about this crafty 5’10” 186 pound 26 year old. Brown averaged 93.7 yards per games in 2013 and caught 8 TDs. Now locked in as the clear-cut number one option and focal point in this offense that promises to air it out a lot of the time, Brown is a top 10 WR and offers tremendous value in the 3rd round. He is a WR1.
Le’Veon Bell /LeGarrette Blount – These two stoners are going to make up what I believe is going to prove to be an impressive rushing attack for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. Although Bell has a whole bunch of miles on his legs after eating week in and week out at MSU and averaged only 3.5 YPC on 244 totes in 2013, I think Bell is guy a lot of people are foolishly starting to write off given is recent legal issues and loss of work to LeGarrette Blount. Bell offers a lot value in the passing game to Blount’s zero in an up-tempo pass-happy offense, though rookie Dri Archer figures to dip into that a bit, if Bells slips to you in the 3rd round I think you would be a fool not to take advantage of it. Don’t sleep on LeGarrette Blount either as he seems to be finding his way in the NFL a bit, and people forget that Blount projected as a first-round draft pick until he punched that dude from Boise State’s lights out. Blount figures to play 1B to Bell’s 1A and get some goal-line work as well, making him Bell’s handcuff and a week to week RB3 whereas Bell remains a borderline RB1/2 in my eyes as we are unlikely to see their recent legal transgressions affect their 2014 fantasy outlook considering we probably won’t hear a ruling from the league as far as punishment until 2015.
Markus Wheaton – Although at times this preseason he as appeared out of sync with QB Ben Roethlisberger, Wheaton has whole lot of talent and will open up the Steelers season as a starter opposite Antonio Brown, he is still just very raw. Starting in an offense that allowed Emmanuel Sanders to put up a line of 67-740-6 in 2013, I see no reason why the more talented Wheaton cannot eclipse those numbers as he remains one of the top boom-or-bust fantasy sleepers in the NFL this year.
Heath Miller – Coming off of a season in which he posted career lows in both yards per reception (10.2) and TDs (1), Heath Miller is healthy again and I think ready to return to 2012 form where he posted career highs in both receiving yards (816) and TDs (8). Miller is a guy that Big Ben looks for in all kinds of different scenarios as he knows Miller is a pretty good bet to bail him out of any dicey situation. Although not explosive at all and now 31 years old, Miller has a clear chemistry with Roethlisberger and should see the volume of targets to put him back on the low-end TE1 radar.