With two of the four AFC divisions down (East and West), we move onto the AFC North for the next installment of my Fantasy Football Forecast. The AFC North has been dominated by the Steelers and Ravens for as long as I can remember, not simply from a real life perspective, but also from a Fantasy Football one. Both defenses have been some of the best, and both offenses were never anything to sneeze at. With the rise of Andy Dalton and AJ Green in Cincy, will the past leaders of the division be dethroned?
Yes, yes they have. Let’s look at it this way: adding together the points scored for the key positions on each team (QB, RB, 2 WRs, TE, DEF) in standard ESPN leagues last year, Cincy comes on top with 898. The Ravens are close with 888, but factor in that total includes Anquan Boldin who is no longer a Raven. Factor in that defense number includes Ray Lewis who is no longer a Raven (although Elvis Dumervil was added). Factor in that the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert, who will only increase Dalton’s productivity, giving him another weapon other than the prolific AJ Green. I can’t ignore the Bengals’ rise as the best fantasy warehouse in this division.
Am I saying the Bengals are a better team? No, but the total of serviceable players they have trumps the number of serviceable players the Ravens have. Dalton finished higher than Flacco last year, and I expect that gap to widen now that Flacco lost his best target. Dalton will be a nice QB pickup and I can see him starting most leagues if he can lower his INT numbers. AJ Green needs no description, and is my #3 WR coming out the gate. Benjarvus Green-Ellis isn’t the sexiest option, but he did finish with 1,094 yards rushing and 6 TDs last season. Yes drafting Gio Bernard is concerning for Law Firm owners, but I believe he’ll still get the goal line carries, and nothing has come out yet to give the idea that Bernard is stealing a lot of Law Firm’s game time.
The duo of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert will hurt a lot of defenses. I dropped Gresham 3 spots in my rankings solely because Eifert will hurt his stats, not to take away from Gresham’s skills. This offense is looking to make a statement and I think that will pay dividends for fantasy owners. The defense isn’t a pushover either. They finished 7th against the pass, and 12th against the run. Giving up only 20 points per game put them at 8th in the league, and I personally think this group is a bit underrated.
How could I possibly not rank the defending champs as the top Fantasy Football team in their division? Well, that’s because they truly aren’t. Who is reliably producing for this offense other than Ray Rice? Joe Flacco? Yes he did have a flawless playoff run, but that streak doesn’t translate to this year. Again, Boldin is gone and he helped Flacco out by catching 58% of his passes for 921 yards and 4 TDs. Who on the Ravens is making up that 921 yard loss?
Torrey Smith? The guy opposing defenses will undoubtedly put all of their secondary defensive focus on? Smith has a big bull’s eye now because they know he’s going to be the main guy in the offense, and I can’t have complete faith that Smith will live up to that. Of the 16 games played, he had no TD’s in 10 of them. 8 of his 16 games he didn’t even reach 6 fantasy points. That’s your starting WR? Sure his final line was 855 yards and 8 TDs, but what that shows me is he’s a very hit or miss player, and you aren’t making your starting WR someone you can’t rely on a weekly basis. Jacoby Jones isn’t a bad player, but he isn’t playing WR for my fantasy team until he’s proven reliable. His best season so far was 2010 with 562 yards and 3 TDs, and I’ll be surprised if he yields much more than that this year. Why?
Dennis Pitta is why. 669 yards and 7 TDs last year for the starting TE, and I think he may be a huge breakout star for the Ravens this year as he may become Flacco’s new safety net. I have Pitta ranked 9th and he could be a nice starting TE for fantasy owners. Remember how I said the Ravens defense is typically known as one of the best? Sorry guys, but they’ve sort of hit the middle of the pack now. 17th against the pass and 20th against the run last year, plus bottom tier turnover numbers have put them out of that glorified spot their defense once held. Maybe they can get back there this year, but there are plenty of other defenses for you to grab first. Oh, and Justin Tucker? I like this kid.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. The Bengals’ top positions finished with 898, the Ravens finished with 888, and the Steelers finished with…749. Now the big reason for that number is Big Ben’s injury issues. If your QB misses games, your team isn’t going to score as much as normal. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Big Ben isn’t getting healthy any time soon. Add the fact that Mike Wallace is gone, Heath Miller’s ACL and MCL tears in Week 16 may have him sidelined for a bit, and the Steelers’ offensive line isn’t that great, Big Ben isn’t getting a lot of help.
Antonio Brown may finally have the breakout year fans have been waiting for. I was one of the many who drafted him last season expecting huge games similar to his end of season stats from his prior year, but unfortunately things didn’t work out that way. With Wallace gone, Brown can finally become the top offensive player the Steelers have (other than Ben). The yardage has been there, we’re just waiting on those TD’s, and who else will Ben have to throw them to especially if Miller is out for some time?
One of the main killers on the Steelers last year was their running game. Mendenhall never got back to his old self, and their RB shuffle of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman did nothing to help fantasy owners. My guess is Le’Veon Bell will get playing time. Whether he starts or not (or holds a starting position is completely up in the air, so this is a guy I’ll have to wait on before passing definitive judgment. In general I’d stay away from the Steelers backfield for now. Unlike the Ravens, the Steelers defense was able to maintain its elite level of play, and in my eyes will be a top-3 defense this season (as long as they can stay relatively healthy at least).
I feel like I may have been a tad harsh on the AFC North so far. No, I’m not trying to pull the bitter Pats fan who is still hurt the Ravens ended our season. The Ravens played better than we did, and our dropping a few passes didn’t hurt either. Oh, am I supposed to be talking about the Browns now? See, there isn’t much to talk about. Trent Richardson is becoming one of my favorite players, and amidst his injury concerns, he finished his rookie season with 950 yards and 11 TDs. Add in his passing game stats, and he finished with 1,317 yards and 12 TDs…as a rookie. He’s 9th in my RB ranks and I would take him in the late 1st round, early 2nd round if I can. I can’t confidently advise drafting anyone else.
There’s probably going to be a battle at QB between Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, and I honestly have no clue who’ll win that. Whoever wins that battle gets to throw to Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Davone Bess. Gordon actually lit up the fantasy world for a few weeks last season, and if he’s treated as the #1 WR he may not be a bad Flex player for most teams. Greg Little is still looking for his big season, and Davone Bess hasn’t been bad over the years, but he’s back to a tertiary role, so his production may take a dip from last year’s. With Gordon out for the first two games due to suspension, Bess may be able to take advantage of the #2 WR spot the first two weeks.
The addition of Norv Turner at offensive coordinator could be a nice boost for the passing game. It really comes down to Brandon Weeden’s growth as a QB and whether he’ll be able to make the right plays. 14 TDs and 17 INTs with 6 fumbles are only hurting this offense, so if he can improve, the WRs get big boosts. Don’t touch the defense though. Joe Haden is awesome, this defense as a whole is not. Every other defense in this division would be better suited for you to choose.
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