To help prepare for the upcoming season for all you fantasy footballers, we will examine every team in the league before the start of the season. 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. While there are a number of really good players in this division, overall this division was pretty bad last year from an offensive efficiency standpoint. Part of that was due to injured Bengals. Part of that was due to letting Marc Trestman run the Ravens offense. And part of it was, well, being the Browns. The real gem, of course, is the Steelers, but we’ll hit the other names of interest before we finish with them.
29th Passing DVOA, 13th Rushing DVOA
QB: Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, DeShone Kizer
RB: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson
WR: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins
TE: David Njoku
The Browns were rewarded with a draft pick from the Texans for taking on the albatross contract of Brock Osweiler. It was a unique trade, the first of its kind in football from what I can tell. Maybe they’ll give him a legitimate shot to compete. Maybe they’ll let him sit on the bench and make a lot of money. Maybe they’ll let him take the field and torpedo their 2017 season for another high draft pick. My money is on Kessler starting in week 1 and, going out on a limb, week 17.
I don’t think that Kizer is ready and he’d be better served with a redshirt year in the system. There are two options that might tempt you in the passing game – Corey Coleman and David Njoku. Coleman showed flashes last year and if Kessler gets the nod, I’ll sign off on taking a shot on him. I’d be a little more concerned about Njoku. Tight end is fairly well stacked in the league right now and rookie tight ends, particularly in an offense in flux, aren’t always a good bet. Besides, this offense will be focused through the running game.
This is a good offensive line and maybe even a great offense line. Joe Thomas is still very good and Joel Bitonio is a fantastic young guard. Newly signed JC Tretter will man the pivot, Kevin Zeitler the other guard position, and either Shon Coleman or Cam Erving will play right tackle. That’s a line with good combination of pedigree and experience and should help pave the way for Crowell and Duke Johnson. Crowell has been the better back but I mention Duke Johnson because he’s a guy that gets a lot of buzz this time of year. With the instability of the passing game, I wouldn’t invest too heavily in Crowell, but some draft tables will leave behind valuable assets and amassing a number of backs left later in the draft will come in handy down the road. I’d be happy if Crowell started the year as my RB2.
26th Passing DVOA, 21st Rushing DVOA
QB: Joe Flacco
RB: Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, Javorius Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Kenneth Dixon (Suspended)
WR: Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman
TE: Maxx Williams, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore
While the Browns ranked lower in offensive DVOA last year than the Ravens, I somehow like what I see even less from a fantasy perspective from Baltimore. No one has ever felt particularly good about Joe Flacco as their fake signal caller – even in a bye week – and I’m having a hard time seeing just who to invest in this passing game. I like Jeremy Maclin as a player, but he’s a bigger name than producer at this point. The bloom fell off the rose for Mike Wallace long ago and we just haven’t seen it from Perriman yet. I’m also not sure what the tight end situation will shake out to be. There are some good players on that list but will any of them emerge as an option for us in fantasy? I don’t think I’m going to invest anything to find out. If you’re willing to stock up on Ravens, hit the comments section to tell me the right plays.
The offensive line really took a step back last year but besides all-world Guard Marshal Yanda, the unit is young so maybe we’ll see an improvement. There was a revolving door at running back last year and they all seemingly had their moment on the waiver wire. Terrance West had some moments in Cleveland but was cut loose from a talent-poor squad. He’s the likely starter at this point. Danny Woodhead has had injury issues and is most effective as a receiver out of the backfield, so an interesting name for PPR leagues. Taliaferro sounds like he’s converting to fullback so erase that name from your memory. I’d be surprised if Buck Allen sticks all year as he was underwhelming in his timeshare last season. That brings us to Dixon. Suspended for the first 4 games of the year, Dixon will be one of those interesting stashes. He’s entering his second year and before his suspension, there was a lot of positive energy surrounding his ability to take over the job for good. Drafting Dixon late and stashing him on your bench for the first part of the year is an expensive play, but it may be one that pays off if you have the discipline for follow it through.
12th Passing DVOA, 12th Rushing DVOA
QB: Andy Dalton
RB: Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Joe Mixon
WR: AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, John Ross
TE: Tyler Eifert
Taking a Bengals running back the last couple of years was a bit of leap. Do you take Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard? Do you take both? Do you avoid the situation altogether? Now I’m not sure what to think with the addition of second round rookie Joe Mixon. Bernard is working his way back from an ACL tear so I’d be hesitant to count on him having a big impact this year. Mixon is the hot name to burst onto the scene but again, how much will he have to split with the other two guys? Hill provides a power element that the other two don’t and has a 1,000 yard year to his name. I would need to get one of these guys on the cheap to feel good about it but I’m probably avoiding the crowded backfield. Are any of you making this play?
All-world talent AJ Green only played in 10 games last year and ended the year on IR. He’s still a fantastic talent and was having one of the best years of his career before he got banged up. As much as injuries to your top tier guys can sink your season, he’s still someone that is so talented he’s worth investing in again. The Bengals used their first round pick on John Ross, speedster out of Washington, to compliment Green. Traditionally, it takes receivers time to adjust to professional coverages, but we’ve seen a few rookies make instant impact. Taking a flier on Ross late in drafts is worth the gamble as he brings a speed element that could allow for Dalton to take a couple big shots down the field.
8th Passing DVOA, 8th Rushing DVOA
QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Le’Veon Bell, James Conner
WR: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rodgers, JuJu Smith-Schuster
TE: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble
Bell is a fantastic back. He does everything well and is entering a contract year (if he doesn’t sign an extension before the season starts). Bell played extremely well after serving his 4 game suspension last year and will likely be the most common choice for the #1 overall pick. I list James Conner, the third rounder out of Pitt, who will have a great chance to take over backup duties and would step into a value role if Bell misses time. I’m not a huge fan of handcuffing players, but this offense is so good I’ll sign off on Conner if you’re lucky enough to get Bell.
Antonio Brown was unable to reproduce his 2015 numbers but he’s still a ridiculously good player and was awarded handsomely with a big contract extension this offseason. Part of the issue with Brown last year was that Pittsburgh missed Martavis Bryant to a yearlong suspension. Bryant is now back with the team and that should help open things up for both players. Brown is a first rounder. I have a feeling Bryant will be over-drafted but if you can get him as a mid-tier WR2, he has a good chance of making good on that investment.
The only thing you fear is a lack of targets between two studs like Bell and Brown. Eli Rodgers had some useful games last year and I assume he’ll be on the field in 3 receiver sets. He might be someone to roll the dice on during bye week fill ins. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a rookie and it’s always a good idea to keep your eye on young Steelers wide outs in dynast leagues. It should go without saying that the guy directing this orchestra, Big Ben, is a certified starting quarterback QB1 in our fake game and, depending on the room, can be had at a good discount regularly.
AFC North Review
There are some absolute elite names in this division with some potential sneaky picks for your draft. The AFC North draws the NFC North and the AFC South so they’ll all play the tough Texans and Vikings defense but otherwise nothing too scary.
All AFC North Fantasy Team – The ideal roster as chosen from only AFC North squads:
QB: Big Ben
RB: Le’Veon Bell
RB: Isaiah Crowell
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: AJ Green
WR: Corey Coleman
TE: Tyler Eifert
Your turn. Anyone in this division I’m sleeping on?