The Fantasy Breakdown – AFC North Edition

Welcome to the Ultimate Fantasy Breakdown! As we head into the pre-season when most fantasy football drafts will be taking place, we will break it down team by team and player by player for every team in the NFL. We will start with my favorite division, the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have finally moved on from Marvin Lewis and have hired new head coach Zac Taylor. Despite being the Bengals’ all-time leader in seasons coached, games coached, playoff games coached and wins, it was clearly time to move on from Lewis. There was some excitement surrounding the Bengals heading into this upcoming season, but that excitement has quickly dissipated due to a rash of injuries to the offensive line, as well as star receiver AJ Green. First round pick Jonah Williams is likely to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum, and Clint Boling, the team’s best offensive line, has retired due to health concerns. Despite the concerns on the offensive line, Joe Mixon is a top 10 running back in fantasy football, and he is worth his current ADP (average draft position). 

Here is a player by player breakdown:

Andy Dalton – Once the prime meridian of NFL quarterbacks, we’ll see if Dalton is able to play his way back to average. With the questionable offensive line and the recent injury to AJ Green, I wouldn’t waste even a late-round pick on Dalton unless I was in a two QB league and was taking him as my third QB in the last rounds of my draft.

Joe Mixon – Mixon is a legitimate first round fantasy football running back. Last year, Mixon averaged 4.9 YPC (yards per carry) behind a terrible offensive line, so I do not worry about his production levels dipping. He was effective whether AJ Green was on the field or not, and he has quickly become the central figure of this offense.

Giovanni Bernard – Although Bernard is not worth more than a late-round pick up in the final rounds of your draft, he is still a quality handcuff back with some flex appeal. We saw his utilization and production last year when Joe Mixon was out weeks 3 and 4. If Mixon is out, Gio becomes an instant RB2.

AJ Green – Green’s injury throws into question his entire fantasy value this year. Not only is he now expected to miss time in the regular season, but he is also a possible trade deadline candidate due to the fact he is entering his contract year. At this point, I’m completely off drafting Green unless it’s a double-digit round flier.

Tyler Boyd – The direct beneficiary of Green’s available target volume will be Boyd. We saw last year that he wasn’t quite as efficient without AJ Green to pull top coverage away from him, however, volume is king and Tyler Boyd should shoot as high as the third or fourth round because of this.

John Ross – Even with the injury to AJ Green, I have little to no faith left in John Ross. Besides the fact that he is generally unavailable due to injuries, he also has not developed the skills required to be a quality NFL receiver. 

Tyler Eifert – Tyler Eifert’s only real flaw is the fact that he has proven to be injury-prone throughout his NFL career. When he is on the field, Eifert is a top 5 TE, ranking among elites of the game like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle.

Cincinnati DST – The Bengals defense was ranked dead last in football in 2018, so there the only place they can go is up, right? If the defensive line can stay healthy, they can provide enough pressure to force quarterbacks into making mistakes against an improving secondary. Overall, I still wouldn’t be considering drafting this defense, but they may surprise people as a potential streaming option.

Cleveland Browns

The hype train has left the station and is full steam ahead for the Cleveland Browns, who have suddenly been tagged with SuperBowl aspirations. I believe Cleveland is still a year away from team success that will translate to a meaningful playoff run. As much talent as there is on this team, and as much as I believe Freddie Kitchens is the right man to lead this team, I still think it will take a year for the team to build the chemistry and cohesiveness that we’ve seen from legitimate playoff contenders in the past.

Here is a player by player breakdown:

Baker Mayfield – The primary reason the Cleveland Browns are suddenly so hopeful is because of star signal-caller Baker Mayfield. Baker passes the eye test for me, slinging accurate passes into tight windows and showing good vision and movement in the pocket. Now that he has a much-improved set of offensive skill players around him, Baker is expected to finish as a top 10 fantasy football quarterback. Unfortunately, as much as I love Baker, I won’t be drafting him in any of my leagues because his ADP is too rich for my blood when it comes to the QB position.

Nick Chubb – Nick Chubb would be a clear first round pick if not for the impending arrival of Kareem Hunt. However, this is a good thing. Because of Kareem Hunt, Chubb’s ADP has been suppressed to the 2nd or 3rd rounds, depending on league size. That is a great value for what will be the lead running back for at least the first 8 weeks, and who will likely remain the primary back all year long as Kareem Hunt acclimates himself to the team.

Kareem Hunt – Following the incident which led to his exodus from the Kansas City Chiefs, Kareem Hunt signed with the Cleveland Browns. Even with his 8 game suspension looming, Hunt is being over-drafted in my opinion. Even if he comes back healthy, the Browns aren’t just going to pull Nick Chubb off the field, especially if he’s been performing. I see Hunt as a high-quality backup with flex appeal, except he won’t be available for three quarters of your fantasy football season.

Odell Beckham Jr – The arrival of Odell Beckham Jr via a trade with the New York Giants has created a groundswell of Super Bowl aspirations in Cleveland. If Baker Mayfield is the conductor on this hype train, Odell Beckham is the one stoking the fire. His presence could unlock this entire offense, opening better looks for Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, and providing a true game-breaking, playmaking presence for Baker Mayfield.

Jarvis Landry – Most people were very high on Jarvis Landry last year, myself included. However, I’m even more excited about Landry this year, especially given his ADP is around the 5th round. Landry is a target monster who will no longer see top coverage, as teams will have to prioritize stopping Odell Beckham first.

Antonio Callaway – The forgotten man in this offense, Callaway could still end up making some noise if he can lock down the WR3 role on this team. Callaway is ultimately a better player than Rashard Higgins, but the latter has proved to be a bit more consistent. It will be interesting to see if Callaway can take over this role, making him a solid late-round flier.

David Njoku – I will be heavily targeting David Njoku in my drafts due to his current ADP. He has the potential to become a top 10 tight end this year, now entering the 3rd year of his career, which is when many star tight ends of the past made the leap. Njoku’s receptions and yards totals increased by approximately 30-40% from 2017 to 2018, and while I don’t expect that rate of growth to continue, I do expect him to have more than 4 touchdowns this year.

Cleveland DST – With all of the love the Browns’ offense has been getting, it seems like people are forgetting the potential of this defense. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward gave this defense a shot in the arm last year, and I expect them to continue to improve this season. If the Bengals’ offensive line continues to struggle, Cleveland will have at least games against a weakened Bengals team. Furthermore, their games with Pittsburgh and the Ravens tend to be relatively low-scoring, making the Browns a sneaky late-round defense to target in your fantasy football drafts.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ success or failure this upcoming season is directly tied to the health and performance of Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers went through a contentious season in 2018, with the primary news coming out of Pittsburgh all year being related to Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. Then, late in the season, the issues between the Steelers and star receiver Antonio Brown imploded the relationship, leading the Steelers to trade their most talented player for peanuts. Now, with a rejuvenated Ben and a team focused on football rather than player antics and contract disputes, the Pittsburgh Steelers will look to capitalize on a promising draft class and make a run at winning the division.

Here is a player by player breakdown:

Ben Roethlisberger – Big Ben will look to continue his personal success over the last 3 to 5 seasons, although it has not translated to playoff success for the team. Ben will be on a mission to prove that he is not the real problem in Pittsburgh following the exodus of his two best players, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The only remaining member of the Killer B’s, Ben will look to repeat his statistical success from last year with a new cast of characters. If he fails, his weekly radio appearances where he lowkey bashes his teammates could become a dividing issue in the locker room.

James Conner – James Conner took over for Le’Veon Bell last year during his holdout and became an immediate fantasy superstar. Unfortunately, that means his price tag has increased immensely. Once an undrafted player who was at most a late-round flier, Conner is now a surefire back of the first round or top of the second round pick. The risk is worth it here, as the Steelers tend to lean on one RB, making Conner an excellent volume play with upside.

Benny Snell Jr – When I watch tape of Benny Snell Jr, it almost reminds me of a Le’Veon Lite. His fit with the Steelers could make him a viable flex starter if the Steelers are truly committed to more of a running back by committee than relying on one bell-cow runner. However, if Conner were to miss time, I believe it is Snell and not swiss army knife Jaylen Samuels who will be the biggest beneficiary.

JuJu Smith-Schuster – Somehow, Juju Smith-Schuster is still underrated. The Steelers leading WR is coming off an incredible season in which he posted more than 1400 yards. The fact that JuJu has only scored 7 touchdowns the past two seasons means he still has room to ascend as a player, making a regression less likely as an outcome for this season. I would take JuJu over every WR in fantasy football except for Davante Adams, Michael Thomas and Deandre Hopkins (yes, I would take him over, Julio Jones).

James Washington – Although Juju Smith-Schuster has spoken glowingly of his teammate, it is questionable whether James Washington can ascend to the true number two position in the wide receiving corps. He has a lot of competition for the role, and it will be interesting to see if he can capitalize on this golden opportunity. Despite positive reviews this off-season, it will be interesting to see if Washington can overcome his ugly rookie season to lock down the number two spot on the depth chart.

Donte Moncrief – Donte Moncrief already finds himself on his third team in as many years, and he is quickly becoming a journeyman player. However, he has a tremendous opportunity in Pittsburgh to catch on with the team and become the number two receiving option behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. The biggest issue with Moncrief, as well as with James Washington, is that fantasy players simply don’t know who is going to win out as the second target. Either way, both players are going relatively late, and are worth taking a risk on.

Diontae Johnson – Diontae Johnson was making waves in camp and had become the leader in to take over the number two WR spot in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, he initially suffered from a hamstring issue which hindered the beginning of his off-season, and now he has recently suffered a hip injury. If Johnson can get healthy, his smooth route-running and ability to play in space could still make him a valuable flex play later this year. 

Vance McDonald – McDonald could prove to be the biggest value at the TE position in fantasy football this season. His ADP is between rounds 8-10 depending on league size, and he could easily outproduce his draft position if he can stay healthy this season. Having a built-in rapport with Big Ben makes him the likely second option behind JuJu Smith-Schuster in the passing game.

Pittsburgh DST – Pittsburgh has finally replaced their defensive leader in Ryan Shazier by trading up to select Devin Bush 10th overall in the NFL Draft. If Bush is the player he is projected to be, he will usher in a renewed enthusiasm for a defense previously viewed as perennially one of the best in the league. For this reason, I’d be willing to take a late-round flier on Pittsburgh’s defense, and I will be keeping an eye on them for streaming purposes throughout the year.

Baltimore Ravens

The perpetual dark horse of the division, the Baltimore Ravens are looking to improve upon their run-heavy offense from last year. Now that Joe Flacco finds himself playing for the Denver Broncos, the Ravens are fully committed to Lamar Jackson and continuing his development. If Jackson can become a better and more accurate pocket passer to pair with his physical skills, he could lead this team to an excellent season, both in real life as well as fantasy football.

Lamar Jackson – As mentioned above, the offense hinges on the improved accuracy of Lamar Jackson. Jackson will still lead a run-heavy power offense, but he will also need to take advantage of weaker coverage when facing stacked boxes. Jackson’s running ability gives him a great floor as a fantasy football option, similar to Bills QB Josh Allen, so if he can improve his passing skills, he could become a much better QB than his current ADP indicates.

Mark Ingram – I’m all in on Mark Ingram this year. Much like I was all in on Derrick Henry last year (and was proven right by season’s end), the combination of the potential volume as the lead back in a run-heavy offense and his relatively low ADP makes Ingram a guy I want on every single one of my teams. When you identify low risk, high upside players like this, you want to target them heavily across all of your drafts.

Justice Hill – The other reason I am so keen on drafting Mark Ingram is because of the availability of Justice Hill late in my drafts. Even in leagues where I have not drafted Ingram, I’ve still been taking late shots on Hill because he is an explosive player who could become a viable flex play in such a run-heavy offense.

Marquise Brown – The highest-rated rookie WR in the NFL Draft this year, ‘Hollywood’ Marquise Brown has struggled a bit in training camp. Though he has been impressive when he’s been on the field, he has also struggled with some minor, nagging injuries. Rookie wide receivers generally do not make a real impact in their first year in the NFL, however, the lack of true depth and Brown’s ability make him a candidate to buck this trend, making him worth a late-round flier in most drafts.

Willie Snead – Willie Snead could become an absolute steal in fantasy football drafts. He is virtually free, going in the very last rounds of NFL drafts. However, he is currently the only WR in Baltimore who is secure in his role as a slot receiver. In PPR leagues especially, targeting Snead in the last few rounds could pay off huge, as he’s a viable flex play with WR2/3 upside.

Mark Andrews – Mark Andrews is a sneaky pick late in drafts, but if his hype continues to grow, this may not be the case by the end of August. The TE in Baltimore has generally presented tremendous value in fantasy football, but it’s important to remember that Joe Flacco is no longer in town. Lamar Jackson still tends to lean on TE’s, so I would feel great about taking Andrews at the beginning of the double-digit rounds.

Baltimore DST – It feels like people are sleeping on the Ravens’ defense. Historically, the Ravens have always managed to remain respectable, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They are transitioning away from the names of the past, such as Terrell Suggs who has moved on to Arizona and are now establishing new stars like the new defensive leader Patrick Onwuasor. I’m comfortable taking a late-round flier on the Ravens to pair with another defense to rotate as streaming options.

NEXT TIME: The AFC South

Jack Lucenay

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