This is our third in a series of eight divisional previews. We will review all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the summer. Reviewing the league this way helps for a couple obvious reasons. Teams in the same division play essentially the same schedule and teams will many times be built in a way to try and win that division. Also, it’s easier to think of the league in 8 parts instead of 32. We’ll review each team, the players to consider, and finish it up with a best of divisional team. I use a variety of sources to build my analysis including DVOA from Football Outsiders, average draft position from Fantasy Football Calculator, and offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus. As always, civil discourse is welcome. Our subject today is the AFC North. They draw the NFC South and the AFC South this year.
2017 DVOA – 32nd; Passing DVOA – 32nd; Rushing DVOA – 9th; Offensive Line – 14th
The Browns. Everyone’s favorite whipping boy made some serious changes in the offseason but it sure felt like the same old Browns. Gone is Sashi Brown who took an extreme Moneyball-type approach to team building. In his place is John Dorsey, a more traditional “football guy” who entered the 2018 offseason with plenty of juice to play with including tons of cap room and a wealth of draft picks. One of those draft picks (#65 overall) was used to trade for the services of Tyrod Taylor, who enters the year as the presumptive starter. Taylor is an athletic quarterback who can be a useful fantasy QB in a pinch. In Buffalo, Taylor was good at taking care of the football and could be counted on to chip in ~200 yards on the ground. His yardage and TD numbers in the air were never in the QB1 territory, but he was an efficient, solid QB and the type of guy who can fill in a bye week.
How long Taylor can hold onto the reins will be interesting as the Browns used the #1 overall pick on Baker Mayfield, the gunslinger from Oklahoma. Mayfield was a bit of a surprise pick to me as he’s undersized and came onto draft radars relatively late for college QBs. This is definitely the type of legacy defining pick for Dorsey as he didn’t play it safe with Sam Darnold or even Josh Rosen but went for the dynamic Mayfield. History tells us that Mayfield will play this season; the question is when he will see the field. Barring an injury from Taylor or the Browns making a serious run at a playoff spot, I could see Mayfield starting as early as Week 5 against the Ravens at home or as late as Week 12 against the Bengals after their bye week. We have some history of rookie QBs making an instant fantasy impact, but I’d be more interested in Mayfield in some type of dynasty league than a redraft league.
The receiving options on this team are interesting. Corey Coleman is a former first rounder who has flashed talent but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He pairs with the talented Josh Gordon (ADP round 3) who has had his fair share of suspension issues. Gordon will always be a risk with that history but has shown a WR1 level of production in the past. Finally, the Browns were on the receiving end of a tag and trade for former Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry (ADP round 6). The slot machine will serve as a luxury safety valve for Taylor or Mayfield. Second year TE David Njoku (ADP round 13) adds another intriguing target as a matchup nightmare. On paper, this is such an impressive group of weapons that it might make Taylor or Mayfield viable. The Browns offense has been a bit of a siren song the last few years so beware of crashing your ship onto the rocks but at the ADP prices, I really like Njoku if you miss out on the top tier of TEs.
There were rumors of the Browns taking Saquon Barkley #1 overall and taking their QB at the #4 overall pick. As it worked out, the Giants took Barkley at #2 and the Browns ended up taking a CB at #4. They waited until day 2 to take Nick Chubb in the 2nd round to pair with the newly signed Carlos Hyde. I’ve been a long-time defender of Carlos Hyde, but he does bring some injury history and is coming off a season where he averaged under 4 yards per carry. The Browns added Austin Corbett, a guard from Nevada with the first pick in the 2nd round but lost All-World LT Joe Thomas to retirement. It’ll be interesting to see how the offensive line shakes out and if they try to move Joel Bitonio out to LT or let Shon Coleman try his hand. Any time you move on from a legend is tough and I’ll be interested to see how this shakes out. The drafting community rates Hyde and Chubb as a RB3 and they’re being drafted on average in round 6 and 8 respectively. I think I’d take my chances on Chubb at that price.
2017 DVOA – 22nd; Passing DVOA – 21st; Rushing DVOA – 20th; Offensive Line – 28th
The other team from Ohio checks in next and despite the tire fire in Cleveland the last few years, the team in Cincinnati is much less interesting for fantasy drafters. Let’s start with the positive. AJ Green is currently the 8th receiver off the board and he’ll cost you, on average, a mid- to late-second rounder. He’s made the Pro Bowl every year of his career and while I can’t really disagree with most of the names ahead of him, Green might wind up as a draft day bargain. He’s the clear alpha in the receiving hierarchy and is the most effective way for Cincinnati to move the ball. The #2 option is probably the oft-injured Tyler Eifert. The Notre Dame product has missed more games than he’s played in his 5 year career and despite the Pro Bowl year in 2015, this is not a guy you want to trust to stay healthy. He’s currently going in the 11th round. John Ross, second year man out of Washington, is the other name to keep in mind. The speedy Ross was a first round pick that never got anything going. No seriously, he had zero catches on 2 targets and 12 yards on one carry that resulted in a lost fumble. For fantasy purposes, he finished the year with negative points. That’s really hard to do. Recovering from a shoulder injury, Ross will try to make good on the first round price the Bengals paid. Ross is currently undrafted so he’s free at the draft table. You can do worse than taking a late round flier on a former first rounder coming back from injury.
The man throwing them the ball is the Red Rifle, Andy Dalton. Coming off a disappointing 2017, Dalton is currently undrafted. That means he’s outside of the top 25 signal callers, below Tyrod Taylor and Eli Manning, if drafts were held today. I think that’s a little hard to believe as Dalton has performed at a Pro Bowl level as recently as 2016. He’s probably a mid-tier QB2 for fantasy purposes but the buzz around him is very low. If you wanted to carry a backup QB to a high round draft pick or wanted to wait until the last couple rounds to take what the draft gives you, Dalton is a solid target.
Joe Mixon, the second year back out of Oklahoma, had a pretty bad rookie campaign, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry behind an offensive line that has some issues. In typical Bengals fashion, they were quiet in Free Agency but added a Center in the 1st round of the draft. Hopefully that will allow Mixon to have a little more success in the run game as expectations are high for the second year Sooner. Mixon is being drafted near A.J. Green at the back of the 2nd round as the RB14 (I’d much rather have Green). Don’t forget about Giovani Bernard. He’ll be there to take a sizeable chunk of the load off of Mixon – enough to prevent the lead back from fully reaching his value. Bernard has enough skills in the passing game to be of interest in a flex role for your squad and certainly someone you should know in PPR set ups.
2017 DVOA – 21st; Passing DVOA – 26th; Rushing DVOA – 7th; Offensive Line – 18th
The Ravens did something very interesting this off season. They signed Robert Griffin III to a contract. Why is that interesting? Because, in a way, I think they telegraphed their interest in their eventual QB of the future, Lamar Jackson, who they traded back into the first round of the draft to take. The former Heisman Trophy winner comes to Baltimore as the presumptive starter in 2019, unless Joe Flacco can play his way to the bench sooner. Given Flacco’s performances the last few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if the package plays Baltimore is currently working on for Jackson turn into a starting gig by mid-season. Just a hunch, but I think Ravens fans are sick of trying to defend Flacco to the world. Neither QB is being drafted in redraft leagues but I’d be interested in finding a spot for Jackson in a dynasty league.
The targets for the Ravens QBs are upgraded, starting with Michael Crabtree, currently the WR30 in standard drafts. That’s a fair price for a player likely to soak up a lot targets. John Brown, formerly of the Cardinals, checks in as a deep threat but with some issues with drops. A couple of rookie 4th rounders will try to carve out some playing time but Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley aren’t likely to splash big on your fantasy rosters. The Ravens drafted two tight ends in Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. Neither interests me at the draft table.
Alex Collins checks in as the favorite to lead this backfield. Collins started 12 games last year and came within an eyelash of topping 1,000 yards for the year. He’s not the best pass catcher out of the backfield but should dominate the carries. Javorius Allen is a name to know as he handled 3rd down duties last season and looks to reclaim that role in 2018. His main competition could be Kenneth Dixon, who missed all of 2017 due to injury. Dixon is an interesting name to keep in mind if he’s fully recovered from injury as it was Dixon who was thought to be the main guy coming into last year. I don’t see myself with any shares of this running game because it doesn’t seem to have an elite talent set up to own the lion’s share of the touches and this offense will be limited by Flacco. If you made me take someone at their current ADP, I’d take Dixon in the 13th round over Collins in the 4th.
2017 DVOA – 3rd; Passing DVOA – 4th; Rushing DVOA – 6th; Offensive Line – 12th
Finally, we get to the best the AFC North has to offer, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big Ben Roethlisberger is back for his 15th season, which makes me feel old as he was born 5 days before me. I had assumed that 2017 would be his last year as he had hemmed and hawed in the offseason but we didn’t really see that from him leading up to this year. After being bounced in the playoffs by the upstart Jaguars, Ben is back for 2018 to lead his group of elite playmakers. He’s currently the 16th QB off the board, which might seem low but is pretty reflective of his historic fantasy finishes. Still, at a price of a 10th round pick, he’s a great candidate to take with another, similarly ranked QB and play matchups all year.
Big Ben will be throwing most often to All-World WR Antonio Brown. The electric Brown has been selected to four straight 1st Team All Pro teams and has a string of 5 straight 100+ catch seasons. You’re drafting Brown in the first round because his average output the last 5 years is an astounding 116/1,570/10. This is a first ballot Hall of Famer with elite production in his age 30 season. Draft and enjoy. Surrounding Brown will be second year breakout Juju Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington. Juju had an outstanding rookie year, earning his way into the starting lineup and finishing with over 900 yards in a partial season. He’s off the board in the 4th round as the WR17 right now and that sounds about right. Washington was taken in the second round of the rookie draft and just because it’s the Steelers, I’m instantly intrigued. However, I don’t know where the targets will come from as Brown, Juju, and the running back demand a high volume of targets.
Speaking of the running back, Le’Veon Bell is back and possibly playing his last season as a Steeler. He’s a dual threat, catching 85 balls last year, and is one of the best pure runners in the game. His patient style of allowing his blocks to set up is some of the most fun football to watch if you’re an offensive line nerd like me. He’s a good bet to flirt with 2,000 yards from scrimmage and is on the short list for the #1 overall pick. Backing him up is second year man James Conner, who only managed about 10% of the carries in 2017. With Bell likely to leave at the end of the year, it’s very possible for the Steelers to see what they have in Conner. Given the elite set up and the nature of the running back position, Conner is one of the few true handcuff picks I’d endorse if you’re lucky enough to snag Bell.
The All AFC North Squad
QB – Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
RB – Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
RB – Nick Cubb, Browns
WR – Antonio Brown, Steelers
WR – A.J. Green, Bengals
WR – Juju Smith-Schuster, Steelers
TE – David Njoku, Browns
D – Ravens