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Fantasy Division Update: AFC North

Though we will re-look this as soon as we have a free agency to impact NFL rosters, as we sit in another dead period between the draft and the who-knows-when CBA, now is as good a time as any to review division by division, team by team, and refresh on what fantasy players are out there, how relevant they were in 2010, and what their potential 2011 impact will be. We will start with the AFC, then move to the NFC, in a North/South/East/West rotation.

Who's in it: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers

How 2010 went: Pittsburgh won the division and advanced to the Super Bowl. Baltimore made a Wild Card appearance. They defeated the Kansas City Chiefs before losing to Pittsburgh in the Divisional round. Cleveland and Cincinnati both finished under .500.

Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco finished 11th in standard scoring, a low end starter for a 12 team league. Ray Rice finished 11th for running backs, a low end #1 or high end #2 option. Anquan Boldin was 25th, and Derrick Mason finished 26th overall for receivers. At around 800 yards each, both made solid #3 options, but Boldin was drafted to be better than that. Heap was 14th for Tight Ends, a solid #2 option. The defense finished 13th overall. What's new? The Ravens added a great man to man corner in Jimmy Smith to help shore up a back end that gets very leaky anytime Ed Reed misses a snap. The big additions, though I don't expect a fantasy relevant season from either, were the picks of Tandon Doss AND Torrey Smith. Smith will be used to help take the top off the coverages right from the start (much like Wallace to Pittsburgh) and Doss will likely move to the slot to add an underneath option. I personally think that while it is said every year, 2010 was the last "solid" season for the aging Derrick Mason. While Doss and Smith will see snaps and make some plays, I actually think it will be Boldin who improves from his 2010 finish and likely moves up to a solid fantasy #2 as he should have been last year. So 2011...Watch for Flacco to show some improvement in his second year with Boldin and the additions of O-Line help and two new receivers. Rice will be good for 1000+ rushing and 300+ receiving and stay a good low #1-high #2 option, and definitely a #1 in PPR leagues. Boldin's play should elevate him to #2 receiver status. The D/ST has a good shot at finishing top 12 in 2011. I wouldn't count on Doss, Smith, or Mason for 2011, but if building for the future, I'd take Torrey Smith as a deep long term prospect in Dynasty leagues with prospect players.

Cincinnati Bengals: Palmer finished 13th and from the media flare, may not be back in 2011. Benson dropped off in 2010 and finished 16th with a 3.5 YPC. T.O. finished 15th and Chad Ochocinco finished 35th, though he was very inconsistent week to week. Rookie Jermaine Gresham finished 21st among tight ends and the D/ST was 29th. What's new? A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, that's what. A solid 2nd round QB pickup and the top rated receiver for the entire draft. So 2011...Well, I am not optimistic. T.O. is a Free Agent and didn't seem wanted back. Ochocinco seemed to be on the outs, but that seems to be an annual trend. Palmer is officially quitting on the Bengals, forcing them to draft Dalton. So in 2011, they may well be without Palmer, T.O. or Ochocinco. The defense didn't get addressed, and a rookie QB to a rookie WR and a second year Tight End do not inspire me against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. If Benson struggled with T.O. blowing the top off, 2011 could be a sub 3.5 yard per carry year and drop him from a #2 option to a #3 option, and even that only because of quantity of carries rather than success with them. Gresham may very well be a great #2 TE option in 2011, and if you are going for a dynasty long-term project A.J. Green is definitely worth the investment...Otherwise, Benson is the only other option worth looking at, and he may be very over drafted this year.

Cleveland Browns: 2010 in Cleveland was all about #4 overall RB Peyton Hillis. McCoy finished 34th among QBs, and if you added Delhomme's points as well, it was still only good for 31st. Ben Watson was a worthy backup TE at #13, and the defense had moments as the #14 overall squad. What's new? Phil Taylor as a Nose Tackle for starters. I am a fan, as you might have picked up from our mock draft where I selected Taylor for the Chiefs. He is going to be a heck of a run stuffing Nose. They also got DE Jabaal Sheard and WR Greg Little. The addition of Jordan Cameron gives them a second decent receiving tight end. So 2011... McCoy will enter the season as a starter and probably play better, though he will still not likely crack starter level stats and will be a low #2 backup. That could, however, spell even better production for Watson and he might make starter worthy numbers in 2011 if Jordan doesn't cut into his touches too much. Massaqoui won't like improve enough to be worth above a #4-5 receiver spot, and Cleveland knows it too, hence the addition of a project big play guy like Greg Little. I worry about Hillis having a drop off in year 2 because he is essentially a one dimensional power back, but I bet he still hits 1000 yards and warrants a high #2 spot, if not a low #1. The D/ST could be a surprise...they have the explosive play on ST from Cribbs and the two defensive additions could put them into the top 12 next year, and they bear watching.


Pittsburgh Steelers: Big Ben finished #17, though missing 4 games can do that to a fantasy season, and his numbers projected over a full season would have had him finish #7 (of course we all know the dangers of projecting numbers...). Mendenhall was the #8 overall back, though it didn't feel that way for some stretches during the season as he hit 1 100 yard game in the last 5. Mike Wallace had a great year (#6) and Hines Ward still put up #3-#4 numbers. Heath Miller had a big drop off and finished as a low, low end #2 TE, but the D/ST finished #1 overall. What's new? After a painful Super Bowl loss, Pittsburgh added 2 Corners and a Defensive End to an already intimidating unit in the first 4 rounds. The other pick went to the O-Line. So 2011...Don't be surprised to see Ben Roethlisberger get #1 QB numbers, Mendenhall to get low #1 to high #2 numbers, Mike Wallace to put up solid #2 receiver numbers, and the D/ST to finish in the top 10 yet again. Not a lot of change for 2011, though Miller and Ward may continue to see less work and may both be relegated to back up roles for fantasy work.

Final Thoughts. The AFC North will be a defense and run based division in 2011, especially where fantasy is concerned. You could be very happy with Pittsburgh or Baltimore as a starting D/ST, and Cleveland is a nice sleeper/backup D/ST option. Hillis, Mendenhall, and Rice are all decent #1 and great #2 options for a running game. Big Ben might be the only worthy #1 QB, but Colt could end up being a nice long term keeper investment in a fantasy dynasty. Boldin and Wallace will both probably have good #2 option numbers in 2011. I don't see any rookies blowing up in this division, and conservative as it may sound, it looks a lot like "more of the same" from the AFC North for 2011.


Next Up: AFC East, AFC West, AFC South, NFC North, NFC East, NFC West, NFC South