To help prepare for the upcoming season for all you fantasy footballers, we will examine every team in the league in the month of July. This effort will be organized through divisions and we will go roughly in order of overall strength of offenses from worst to best. Since teams in the same division play roughly to same schedule, it can be helpful to consider the defenses each division will face. I use team stats from Football Outsiders (DVOA), Average Draft Position (ADP) from Fantasy Football Calculator, and standard fantasy scoring on Yahoo. As always, comments, disagreements, and questions are welcome.
Today we cover the AFC North. The best division in the AFC for your fantasy football needs and it’s coming predominantly from 2 teams. This is another division of haves and have nots, but the haves are embarrassingly good and the have nots could, maybe, see some improvement. It’s a fun division to watch and a lot of fantasy championships will come from ownership in the Rust Belt.
27th Passing DVOA, 19th Rushing DVOA
QB: Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler
RB: Duke Johnson Jr., Isaiah Crowell
WR: Corey Coleman, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Jordan Payton, Rashard Higgins, Terrelle Pryor, Ricardo Lewis, Marlon Moore
TE: Gary Barnidge
Hue Jackson moves upstate to take over the moribund Browns. Unlike all the other Head Coaches that have come and gone in recent years (9 coaches since Cleveland was reestablished as a franchise in 1999), Jackson should be given a long rope with a new front office. Then again…it’s Cleveland, so who knows. There is certainly talent in this backfield with sophomore Duke Johnson Jr. and third year man Isaiah Crowell. With a new coaching staff, the fate of the backfield is still up in the air so keep an eye on this one during preseason. Both of these guys are drafted in the RB3/4 range right now so there’s no real risk if you’d like to gamble on this run game.
The passing game is where this gets interesting with a, ummm, well-rested Robert Griffin III competing with journeyman Josh McCown and rookie Cody Kessler for the starting gig. RG3 is the presumptive favorite and don’t rule out the possibility that Hue Jackson can do something with him. This has been a consistently good pass blocking O-line led by Joe Thomas so whoever is at QB will have time to throw. The receiving tree is completely up in the air with Cleveland taking ALL the wide receivers. Coleman comes in as a 1st round pick and almost certainly will start. The rest of that scrum is up in the air as far as who can come out with playing time. There’s no real risk on Coleman right now as the #47 receiver off the board, but that might change once preseason hits. The TE Gary Barnidge was a career ham-and-egger before blowing up last season with a monster year. Invest at your own risk in what is likely a one year wonder. **Note** I have not considered what Josh Gordon can do in this offense. His reinstatement really is a game changer for this team and could shake up the Browns passing game after he serves his 4-game suspension. My guess is that he'll be overdrafted but he hasn't played football in a long time and we don't know what he'll look like in the Hue Jackson offense. He's definitely a risk / reward proposition.
21st Passing DVOA, 18th Rushing DVOA
QB: Joe Flacco
RB: Justin Forsett, Kenneth Dixon, Javorius Allen,
WR: Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken
TE: Maxx Williams, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore
The Ravens fell off a cliff last year while seemingly every fantasy player went down with a season ending injury. Flacco tore his ACL, Forsett broke his arm, Steve Smith tore his Achilles, Breshad Perriman tore and his PCL. The good news for Ravens fans is Steve Smith postponed his retirement because he wasn’t going out like that. That’s a win for really everyone in the world that isn’t a professional corner. Steve Smith owns a spot on my "most fun to own list" forever and ever. Respect. Mike Wallace says he needs and elite quarterback to be good, which is why he stunk for the Vikings. Joe Flacco is certainly an upgrade over Teddy B, but let’s pump the brakes on Wallace’s usefulness in this offense. Expect Kamar Aiken to see the field but likely fall short of fantasy relevance. The tight ends are listed because Maxx with 2 X’s Williams and Crockett Gillmore win the best names of any position group in the league (Benjamin Watson isn’t bad either). Maxx Williams is the name to file away for the future.
The running game takes a hit with the departure of Kelechi Osemele, the nasty guard now blocking for Latavius Murray in Oakland. Plus, the backfield is crowded with the incumbent Forsett trying to hold off second year man Javorius "Buck" Allen and 4th round rookie Kenneth Dixon. The thinking last year was with Marc Trestman hired to call plays, Forsett was going to have a Matt Forte-like impact. Forsett’s skill set falls short of Forte’s, but if this offense remains healthy and Forsett can hold off the younger backs, 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 8 TDs is a safe bet.
1st Passing DVOA, 7th Rushing DVOA
QB: Andy Dalton
RB: Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard
WR: AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, Mario Alford
TE: Tyler Eifert
It’s hard to overstate just how good Andy Dalton was last year before he went down with an injury. Dalton has been much maligned in his career due to his playoff resume, but it looked like all of that was about to change last year. Dalton was on pace to finish as a top 10 fantasy QB last year but he’s likely to be drafted lower than that. Translation: Profit to be made here. He’ll be throwing to AJ Green, one of the most talented receivers in the league and one of those guys in the mix in the top 5 receivers. If you want Green, you need to get him by the middle of the 2nd. Tyler Boyd is an intriguing rookie. A consolation prize in the second as the Bengals missed out on the 1st round receiver run, the former Pitt Panther drew comparisons to the steady Keenan Allen in the draft process. He’s worth a speculative pick at the end of the draft. Tyler Eifert broke out last year, leading all TEs with 13 touchdowns. He’s a top 5 TE pick and even carrying his injury risk is worth the investment.
The running game was similarly effective, but it was an efficient split between Hill and Bernard. Hill took the lion’s share of the goal line work while Bernard did a lot of damage in the passing game on third downs. From a football perspective, this is an ideal relationship with two productive backs. From a fake football perspective, it drops their value down significantly. Bernard was the more explosive and versatile back last year. Hill may have been suffering from that sophomore slump that many running backs experience. The drafting community prefers Hill. I prefer the slightly cheaper Bernard.
5th Passing DVOA, 4th Rushing DVOA
QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams
WR: Antonio Brown, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates
TE: Ladarius Green
There is a legitimate debate in fantasy circles this year as to who the #1 overall pick should be. The answer is almost always a Steeler. The first of those candidates is Le’Veon Bell, the stud tailback out of Michigan State. Bell can do just about everything on the football field and is in a contract year, for those of you who put stock in that sort of thing. He’s the closest thing to LaDainian Tomlinson that we’ve had in our fake game since he retired. Given his injury history, DeAngelo Williams is a MUST HAVE handcuff. Seriously, if you’re lucky enough to land Bell, overdraft his handcuff to protect yourself. Williams gave us a sterling effort in relief last year and is an insurance policy worth carrying. **Note** Le'Veon Bell is potentially facing a 4-game suspension. If that sticks, he should drop out of the top half of the first round and maybe into round 2. It's a gamble to use a high pick on someone you know will miss at least 25% of the season, so this will be a fascinating play for whoever is willing to do it.
The other candidate for #1 overall is Antonio Brown. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything quite like the game that he brings to the table. He’s the President of the "Always Open Club" and with the suspension of Martavis Bryant, his targets are likely to remain sky high. Draft and enjoy. After Brown, the weapons come with question marks. Wheaton has been slow developing and Sammie Coates basically took a redshirt year in 2015. There’s enough volume in this offense to make one of those guys relevant. Ladarius Green replaces the immortal Heath Miller. Green was the perennial tease in San Diego, forever apprenticing behind Antonio Gates and falling short of his athletic expectations. He’s going for a mid-round pick based on that potential and I understand why. The ceiling on Green is as high as any tight end not named Gronkowski and getting shares in this offense isn’t a bad approach. Just remember, at best Green is the #3 option behind two all world talents. Finally, Big Ben deserves to be considered as a top 5 QB and is certainly someone you can feel good about on an every-week basis.
AFC North Review
This division is awesome for fake football. Two surefire top of the first round picks in Bell and Brown with Green possibly sneaking into the back end. The AFC North gets both the AFC and NFC East divisions on the schedule, which offers only one legit top ten defense in Buffalo. You won’t be able to put together the squad below but getting someone on that list would be a help to your squad.
All AFC North Fantasy Team – The ideal roster as chosen from only AFC North squads:
QB: Big Ben
RB: Le’Veon Bell
RB: Giovani Bernard
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: AJ Green
WR: Steve Smith Sr.
TE: Tyler Eifert