AFC North Fantasy Preview

August 25, 2020

The script flipped in the AFC North last season for fantasy owners. In years past we wanted every piece of the Steelers high-powered offense and faded the other teams within the division. The Browns were incredibly dysfunctional, the Bengals were perennially “meh,” and the Ravens won through hard-fought defensive games, not always the best recipe for fantasy success.

Now the Steelers are a defensive-led team and the Ravens are among the highest scoring NFL teams. The Browns have hope once more and the Bengals have No. 1 pick Joe Burrow at the helm. It’s time to break down the division and identify some key pieces of those teams for your fantasy drafts.

Baltimore Ravens

Player I’m drafting: I’ve talked at length about Marquise “Hollywood” Brown this offseason and the breakout season I expect him to have. So instead of heaping even more praise upon Brown, Mark Ingram is an incredible value I’m selecting everywhere in my drafts. Year after year fantasy owners disrespect Ingram and year after year he exceeds expectations. Now the knock is his age, 30. However, Ingram has split carries his entire career and continued to do so in Baltimore. He only played 45.6% of the snaps in 2019, yet he finished as the RB8 on the back of 15 all-purpose touchdowns. I fully expect him to still crack double-digit touchdowns in this run-heavy Ravens system while still leading the team in carries. The team has stressed the need to spread the ball around the backfield, and people are simply overreacting to that. They already did that last season. 

The addition of 2020 second-round pick J.K. Dobbins could lead to a bit more inconsistency than one may like. But Ingram is a trusted veteran who thrived on the goal line and he will continue to do so. They paid him in 2019, he performed extremely well for a team in win-now mode, and they will continue to use the three-time Pro Bowl running back enough to be a solid fantasy asset. Currently being drafted as the RB26, Ingram is a fantastic mid-round target for teams who started off less RB-heavy.

Sleeper: Don’t look now, but Myles Boykin quietly had his best practice the day after the Dez Bryant workout was scheduled. Call it added motivation. Boykin is currently going undrafted, as he should be. But outside of tight end Mark Andrews, the 2019 third-round pick is the biggest receiver this team has. Should MVP Lamar Jackson take another step forward as a passer, Boykin could be an under-the-radar option for touchdowns. It’s still a run-heavy team, but if Hollywood is dragging away No. 1 cornerbacks, Boykin could emerge as a streaming option. He’s a name to monitor as the season progresses.

Player I’m avoiding: Talent doesn’t always equate to immediate fantasy success. It took players like Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, drafted in the second and third round, respectively, years to receive the work they needed to show out for fantasy success. Sometimes it takes half a season or so like Nick Chubb needed in 2018, but it’s a case-by-case basis.

The case with J.K. Dobbins isn’t great.

I love Dobbins as a player and as a fit in this RPO-centered offense, but the aforementioned Ingram is still a big part of this team’s game plans. He will still lead the team in carries and be predominantly featured on the goal line. Dobbins is a skilled pass catcher who will try to carve out his niche there, but as I detailed on my Risers and Fallers piece, Jackson rarely threw to his running backs, with Ingram leading the pack with just 30 targets. Dobbins will have his games because he’s talented, but predicting them is going to be impossible. I’d be fine with drafting him as a stash play should he become more involved as the season progresses, but RB31 is way too steep of a price. You won’t catch me spending a back end fifth-round pick on Dobbins this season despite my belief in his long-term output.

Bust: This may be a cop-out, but it’s actually no one. I have no issues with spending a late second or early third-round pick on Lamar Jackson — I currently have him as my QB1 over Patrick Mahomes. I’m bullish on Brown and Ingram, Andrews is still the focal point of this passing offense whose snaps could rise with Hayden Hurst now a Falcon and no one else in this offense is currently being drafted with any high hopes. There are no reasons to expect the Ravens to be anything but great.

Cincinnati Bengals

Player I’m drafting: Make no mistake about who the No. 1 target on the Bengals is — it’s Tyler Boyd. After two years of misuse under ex-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Boyd made a big third-year jump which earned him a lucrative $43 million extension heading into last year. He was a solid option in 2019 despite subpar quarterback play from Andy Dalton and Ryan Finley.

Now, Boyd is being drafted behind his 2018 and 2019 finish despite an improved offense all around. The offensive line gets 2019 first-round tackle Jonah Williams back from a torn labrum that cost him his rookie year. Joe Burrow steps in under center, a big improvement over the play last season even with rookie struggles. Most importantly, the offense enters its second season under head coach Zac Taylor. Offenses tend to take a big step forward in the second year of the system, though it’s worth noting that Burrow’s inevitable rookie errors could hold that back.

Either way, Boyd is a solid option for RB-heavy teams that avoided early round wide receivers. He’s being drafted as the WR29 and he doesn’t need to do much to exceed that ADP. With A.J. Green already injured, Boyd’s floor is fairly close to his ADP, making this a low-risk pick.

Sleeper: When the Green Bay Packers traded up in the first-round, Aaron Rodgers thought that Tee Higgins might be coming to Lambeau. Fortunately for the Bengals, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst must’ve lost his wide receiver sheets because he passed on Higgins (and every other receiver in the class for the remainder of the draft) for Utah State’s Jordan Love, allowing Higgins to be taken with the first pick of the second-round.

Higgins is another solid receiver prospect out of Clemson who fits Green’s mold as a perfect complement to Boyd. Higgins, at 6 feet four inches tall weighing 215 pounds, can easily be the best red zone target the Bengals have had since Green played in 2018. He was incredibly productive at Clemson, averaging over 19 yards-per-catch and posting over 1,100 receiving yards. He also scored 12 or more touchdowns in two consecutive collegiate seasons. For what it’s worth, it’s also not unprecedented for rookie quarterbacks to target other rookie receivers.

His training camp started with a rocky start, being sidelined with a hamstring injury, but he is now back in the fold while Green continues to nurse his own injury and John Ross returns from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Higgins could have an A.J. Brown type of second-half breakout as he and Burrow adjust to NFL life. Keep an eye on him — he’s the clear successor to Green’s throne as the physical X receiver in this offense on the rise.  

Player I’m avoiding: He’s been lighting up camp and he looks the part of a No. 1 overall pick. But Joe Burrow won’t be drafted by any of my fantasy teams in regular formats.

But this isn’t a diss to Burrow or even his fantasy value. I’m very excited to see what he can do this season and am more than willing to stream him. 

However, the 2019 Heisman quarterback faces a tough Chargers defense in Week 1, a solid Browns defense in Week 2, and an improved Eagles defense in Week 3. I wouldn’t be against picking him up a couple weeks in for a juicy Jaguars matchup in Week 4, but drafting Burrow is a waste of a pick — he isn’t worth playing against those teams. If you have the room, pick him up when he gets dropped after Week 1 waivers run, but spend the draft pick on a player who could break out in Week 1. Burrow won’t.

Bust: I wrote all about this in my aforementioned Risers and Fallers piece, but A.J. Green is simply a player that is almost undraftable for me.

Green hasn’t played a game since 2018. That alone is a major flag before considering the toll the injuries and time have had on his body. Have I mentioned he’s also 32 years old? The Bengals offense should improve but if Green isn’t out there, it doesn’t mean much. His draft price finally fell this season in comparison to years past, leading many to tout him as a value.

However, the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver is already sidelined with a hamstring injury that was reportedly “precautionary,” yet it has kept him out for nearly a week. He suffered the injury just a few days into camp during the first practice open to the media. The team is paying Green a boatload of money to be their No. 1 wide receiver but until he plays football for more than a few days without getting hurt, I’m avoiding Green at all cost. Since the injury, he’s been drafted as the WR32, far too high for my liking. 

Cleveland Browns

Player I’m drafting: The hype for Kareem Hunt has seriously been disrespectful to the running back who was 46 yards behind Derrick Henry in rushing yards. The player who has two straight years of scoring at least eight touchdowns while averaging over five yards-per-carry despite a massive 298 carry workload in 2019. The player who finished as the RB7 behind Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive line.

That player, of course, is Nick Chubb.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Chubb is an elite rusher. You can see it on the field and in the box score. His blend of speed and power is on par with the likes of Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliot, but his limitations in the receiving game worry fantasy owners. With Hunt in town, Chubb’s receptions will surely drop. But scoring just eight touchdowns on 298 carries is as fluky as it gets and a testament to how bad the offensive line was. When they were on the goal line, Chubb was met behind the line of scrimmage far too often. In fact, Chubb was tied with Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook for the third-most carries inside the five-yard line (15), behind Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (16) and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (17). But those 15 carries inexplicably went for -14 yards and two touchdowns.

Now, either Chubb isn’t talented enough or the offensive line/play calling was just awful. I choose to believe the latter.

Less volume with the involvement of Hunt can be easily offset by an increase in touchdowns. The team will still heavily involve Chubb in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s run-heavy system that saw Dalvin Cook thrive last season. General manager Andrew Berry added stalwart right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency, drafted Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round, and Washington’s Nick Harris in the fifth-round. Pro Football Focus ranked them as the most improved offensive line in football in May. With an ADP of RB11, Chubb is the Brown to own.

Sleeper: The Browns paid $42 million for Austin Hooper to be their starting tight end. They traded for Jarvis Landry in 2018 and Odell Beckham Jr. in 2019. They signed Kareem Hunt, a capable pass-catcher.

So why is David Njoku a sleeper with all these weapons?

Well, Njoku has flashed his athletic ability without much consistency over his career. This was a first-round pick in 2016, after all. Stefanski comes to Cleveland looking to revamp the offensive mess that Freddie Kitchens and Hue Jackson put in place. It’s a start-from-scratch type of situation.

No team ran less 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WR) than Stefanski’s Vikings last season. Rookie Irv Smith Jr. and veteran Kyle Rudolph split time, and while neither was really fantasy relevant, they aren’t the duo that Hooper and Njoku could be. The Browns still have a plan for Njoku after refusing to trade the tight end, and he has since committed himself to the team.

It’s still unlikely, like most sleepers. But Njoku has the opportunity to become a streaming option if Stefanski continues to run as many two-tight end sets as he did in Minnesota.

Player I’m avoiding: It’s all about the draft price, and currently, it’s just too high for my liking. The bounce back is coming for Odell Beckham Jr., who is a generational type of talent. It’s easy to forget with the nagging injuries that have restricted him, but this is still the same player who made that one-handed catch against Dallas. He’s still the same guy who can take a slant all the way for a touchdown at any given moment. Beckham had an underwhelming 2019 season but still posted over 1,000 yards despite playing through a hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

But WR10… that’s too steep of a price. To get Beckham, you need to draft him near his ceiling in this system that will likely have a low passing output. He’s never been a volume guy, but it certainly never hurts to have it as a floor. Minnesota had the fifth-most rushing attempts in 2019. It could be unfair to expect a direct transition from Stefanski’s Vikings to Stefanski’s Browns, but with the pieces being so similar it seems only fair. 

I never like drafting players near their ceiling, and when they are in front of players like Carolina’s D.J. Moore or Dallas’ Amari Cooper, it’s easy to avoid them in drafts. I’d love to have Beckham on my fantasy team — but the price is too high at the moment for a player who hasn’t been inside the top 15 fantasy wide receivers since 2016 as a New York Giant.

Bust: Similarly, to my Njoku argument, the odds are against Baker Mayfield to make the jump people want. 

It’s the first year in a new system for a new offensive coach. While we can predict how he is going to run the offense, it is natural to expect hiccups when introducing players to a new scheme. At best, this system should run like it did in Minnesota — Chubb and Hunt dominate the ground game which opens Mayfield to utilize play-action and hit Beckham deep. Kirk Cousins did the same with Dalvin Cook setting the tone and Stefon Diggs burning defenses deep. The pieces are eerily alike.

But Cousins is simply a better quarterback than Mayfield at this point in his career, especially at throwing the deep ball. The 2018 No. 1 pick, Mayfield was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked quarterback as a deep passer. Some of that could be due to a weak offensive line, but expecting a huge leap in the first year of a new system is unlikely.

Even if Mayfield does become better, Cousins was merely the QB15 in 2019. He was a streaming option and his upside was capped in a run-heavy system. The same is true of Mayfield in 2020, and when taking a quarterback late, I always shoot for upside over floor. Mayfield doesn’t have the ceiling to warrant spending a pick on him. Mayfield is being drafted as the QB15, right where Cousins finished in 2019. He won’t run the system as well as Cousins did, and while he will be a streaming option at times, he will bust relative to the expectations levied upon him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Player I’m drafting: Whenever I choose to bypass the early-round quarterbacks, it’s because I know I can get Ben Roethlisberger with my last pick. I’m not calling for a resurrection of Big Ben’s career or a return to his 2018 form when he led the league in passing yards, finishing as the QB3. In fact, Roethlisberger should be the exact opposite of his 2018 form when he threw the ball a whopping 675 times.

The Steelers of years past needed a high-powered offense to overcome a leaky passing defense that got gashed week-in and week-out, but the addition of cornerback Steven Nelson and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, plus the sheer dominance of linebacker T.J. Watt brought new life to a defensive unit that ranked fifth in points allowed and first in sacks, pressures and turnovers. Roethlisberger will have to be efficient to counter the drop in passing volume.

But I’m drafting him for that Week 1 matchup. He plays the New York Giants in Week 1, a lovely matchup. Eric Ebron was added to give Roethlisberger a reliable red-zone option at tight end after Vance McDonald failed to stay healthy yet again. Diontae Johnson had an impressive rookie year with some of the worst quarterback play seen in years. Juju Smith-Schuster can still serve as a reliable No. 1 target who has great chemistry with Roethlisberger. Rookie Chase Claypool and third-year James Washington are both terrific depth pieces that could start on other teams in the NFL (looking at you, Packers and Jets).

Roethlisberger has the weapons to be a solid fantasy asset this year. If you punt the quarterback position in fantasy, feel free to take Roethlisberger in the 11th round. After an easy week 1, his matchups after a tough Week 2 tilt versus Denver are enticing as well.

Sleeper: James Conner was on-and-off the field from Week 9 on after another injury-marred season kept the 2017 third-round pick from living up to expectations. With his health forever a question mark, Benny Snell Jr. is a name to watch closely. The 2019 fourth-round pick struggled as a rookie in his limited opportunities, looking slow and sluggish at times. His speed, or lack thereof, was a major concern when he was a prospect at the University of Kentucky. His 4.66 40-yard-dash time didn’t help his draft stock either.

But it’s a new dawn for Snell who has worked hard to reinvent himself this offseason. Mark Kaboly of The Athletic noticed that Snell looked like he underwent a “significant transformation.” 

Sure enough, according to Sports Illustrated’s Noah Strackbein Snell had lost 12 pounds after weighing 224 pounds as a rookie. The coaches have been impressed by his work ethic and his fitness when he came to camp.

“Yes, it is true, Benny looks better,” Steelers running back coach Eddie Faulkner said at the beginning of training camp, via Ed Bouchette of The Athletic. “He has done a lot of running, you can see the work he has put in. The exciting part about it is he did it while being away from us, so you know he had a focus on getting right and getting in the best shape that he can. So, I am excited about Benny. That is a guy that is passionate and loves the game.”

Le’Veon Bell lost 20 pounds heading into his breakout 2014 season in order to become more explosive. Snell is looking to do the same behind a still-dominant offensive line. If Conner misses time, Snell could take the job and run away with it as a league-winner. Jaylen Samuels has proven that he’s not a lead back, and rookie Anthony McFarland doesn’t have the build to be the bell cow head coach Mike Tomlin always prefers. If your league is deep enough, Conner owners should strongly consider Snell as a high-value handcuff.

Benny Snell Football can make a league-changing impact on fantasy rosters this season.

Player I’m avoiding: His jersey may be signed and framed on my cabinet, but it doesn’t mean Juju Smith-Schuster will make it on my fantasy rosters.

Fantasy owners have given Smith-Schuster a second chance after a dismal campaign derailed by Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury. The USC product himself suffered a concussion and a knee injury that lingered throughout the year. Mason Rudolph certainly couldn’t throw him open and Smith-Schuster struggled to create separation. He finished as the WR66 after being drafted as the WR5 in 2019.

That type of burn typically is unforgivable by the fantasy community, but Smith-Schuster is still being drafted as the WR12. Maybe it’s because the 2017 second-round pick is so likable. Either way, the price is extraordinarily high for a player that still has question marks. Is he actually a No. 1 wide receiver? Can he succeed without Antonio Brown opposite him? Has Roethlisberger hit the wall?

Yes, yes, and no would be my answers, but Smith-Schuster is being drafted like those questions don’t exist at all. His best year came in 2018 on the back of 166 targets when he finished as the WR8. He’s being drafted to replicate that success, which required Roethlisberger to attempt the 675 passes as mentioned above. Smith-Schuster still has excellent chemistry with the veteran quarterback and in a truncated offseason that matters. He can still have a great fantasy season on a contract year where he will likely leave Pittsburgh given the lack of cap space, but drafting him as a WR1 is too rich for my liking.

Bust: What may have been overlooked in an unwatchable offense was how well Diontae Johnson performed. As a rookie he racked up 680 yards on 59 receptions, one of the very few bright spots within Pittsburgh’s offense. 

In years past, the Steelers’ No. 2 wide receiver held significant value to fantasy owners. Smith-Schuster, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and even Martavis Bryant all starred at times in Pittsburgh. But once again, the identity of the team has shifted. The Steelers can now win with defense rather than being forced to win with their offense. Green Bay made the same transition, and after years of supporting two wide receivers for fantasy, it fell apart as the team shifted to a defense-minded approach. 

Johnson is talented in his own right, but so are the options behind him. James Washington put up career numbers last season, leading the team in receiving yards and Chase Claypool is a 2020 second-round pick who has flashed during camp. Additionally, Smith-Schuster will easily draw far more targets than he did last season, and they added Ebron in free agency after McDonald only caught 38 passes through 14 games.

If Smith-Schuster isn’t the talent I believe he is then Johnson is sure to make me look foolish here. But should Smith-Schuster sniff the production he had in 2018, the volume won’t be there for Johnson to live up to his WR34 ADP. The second-year wide receiver is also nursing an undisclosed injury and is reportedly “day-to-day.” He should be ready for Week 1, but he will struggle to find his footing for fantasy football purposes in 2020.