The AFC North featured three playoff teams and the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020, all of which provided terrific fantasy value for fantasy owners. None of that is set to change in 2021 — in fact, it might even be better with all but the Cleveland Browns investing first-round capital in their offenses. Fantasy points will be flowing as the AFC North is explored for must-drafts, values, sleepers, and busts.
Must-draft: If you could sum up the Steelers’ 2020 season in one word, it would be “unsustainable.” After leading the league in pass-attempts (656) and losing four of their last five regular-season games, the team crawled to an infamous playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. To balance out the offense, Pittsburgh invested a first-round pick in the dominant Najee Harris, who scored 26 touchdowns in just 13 games last season at Alabama.
Harris is a monster talent who will see a tremendous workload. Since 2016, first-round running backs have seen an average of 249.5 touches in their rookie seasons, and that’s including Rashaad Penny’s rookie year which was riddled with injuries despite appearing in 14 games.
Factor in the fact that Mike Tomlin has always favored a bell-cow running back, and Harris becomes the best fantasy pick on the team. And if you are worried about the offensive line, see this incredible stat from Dynasty Nerds analyst Marco Enriquez.
Value: After a historic start to his career as a rookie, Chase Claypool slowed down a little bit in the second half of the season. In short, when Claypool was less utilized, the wheels fell off for the offense.
Now, Claypool can’t be blamed or accredited for the Steelers’ offense, but his role in 2021 should be even bigger. The addition of Harris and an actual rushing attack helps Claypool more than one may think. Defenders will fear the run game which sets up Ben Roethlisberger for throws down the field that simply weren’t available or used in 2020.
A key to fantasy success is to recognize regression statistics. Roethlisberger’s 6.3 yards per attempt is so bad, it’s bound to improve. This was still a quarterback who threw for 33 touchdowns and 3,800 yards in 15 games while winning his division. There is still enough tread for Roethlisberger to utilize a deep threat like Claypool, whose WR28 ADP is a good price for tremendous upside.
Sleeper: I suppose I’m a fan of the Steelers’ draft, because tight end Pat Freiermuth is a talent that fantasy owners should be aware of.
I’m not crazy — the odds of a rookie tight end producing are slim — and it doesn’t help that veteran Eric Ebron is still around. But Ebron isn’t exactly the shining image of consistency or health. It’s conceivable that Freiermuth earns a starting role on this team later in the season and becomes a red zone threat. He’s not someone to draft, but rather a name to keep an eye on as a streaming candidate.
Bust: I don’t think any Steeler will destroy fantasy teams, but Juju Smith-Schuster is the most likely to disappoint. His WR30 ADP sounds intriguing — he’s finished outside the top 24 in PPR formats just once — but ADP is relative. Names around Smith-Schuster like Courtland Sutton and DeVonta Smith command targets and possess higher upside.
Slot receivers like Smith-Schuster possess capped upside, particularly in crowded offenses where volume is limited. Even if Smith-Schuster succeeds relative to his ADP, his ceiling is as a middling WR2, and my expectation is as a low-end WR2/high-end WR3. That isn’t helping many fantasy teams at the end of the year.
Must-draft: The must-draft category adds another rookie to the list as Rashod Bateman is the Raven people must leave drafts with.
The team invested a first-round pick in Bateman, who profiles as a true WR1 standing at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. His silky route-running and reliable hands made him stand out at Minnesota, and those traits will be put to good use as a Raven.
There may not be a much passing volume in Baltimore, but the pie should be larger than what it was in years past. With a massive contract extension on the horizon for Lamar Jackson, the team has put every effort in this offseason to see if Jackson can improve as a passer. That strongly implies that the offense will feature more passing attempts, which will inevitably lead to Bateman.
You can pay a fourth-round price for Mark Andrews. You can gamble a ninth-round pick on Marquise Brown. But I’ll take an almost free shot on Bateman who has the upside and talent to outproduce the others in the 14th round.
Value: J.K. Dobbins is great. He’s a skilled pass catcher and talented rusher.
But while Dobbins’s name is listed first, it’s Gus Edwards that you want on your squad.
The Ravens will pass the ball more but make no mistake — Baltimore will still be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league. Edwards recently got a meaningful contract extension, and John Harbaugh loves to use the “Gus Bus.” Edwards out-carried Dobbins 144-134 last season, and there’s no reason to believe Edwards won’t get his share of goal-line carries given his size.
Edwards can provide FLEX value as an RB3 with sky-high upside should Dobbins miss time, and he’s being drafted as the RB41 in the ninth round. He’s a solid target for any team, particularly those who favor a zero-RB approach.
Sleeper: Bateman is both a must-draft and a sleeper candidate, but there’s another name to throw into the fantasy void — Devin Duvernay.
Like Pat Freiermuth, you are not drafting Duvernay nor expecting much from him. But if the Ravens commit to the passing game, it’s feasible that they utilize a dynamic weapon like the former Texas receiver. He led all receivers in his draft class — a class that featured some of the best rookie wide receivers in recent memory — in yards-after-catch.
He should man the slot with Willie Snead now a Raider, and while he may split time with Marquise Brown, it’s possible that Duvernay takes that role full-time.
Players who possess big-play ability can be great fantasy assets with consistent snaps. Duvernay has an admittedly small chance to be anything more than a role player, but he’s a name to keep an eye on.
Bust: Perhaps I’m simply burned from hyping up Marquise Brown last year, but my rosters will not have the former Sooner on it. And the reason is a tough reality.
I was wrong.
Brown doesn’t possess the ability to be a consistent weapon, and the addition of weapons like Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman, and Tylan Wallace doesn’t make that ability any more real. Jackson also only completed 37% of his deep passes last year, 23rd in the NFL. That could improve, but Brown didn’t play well himself. He was 83rd in catch rate and 70th in yards per target.
Brown was 86th in catchable target rate. You can blame Jackson or Brown, but the fact remains that they have not found their groove, and the addition of new faces shouldn’t help that.
Must-draft: Nick Chubb is supremely talented.
It’s nice to have zero doubts about the talent you draft in the early rounds, and Chubb certainly qualifies. The Browns star broke a tackle every 9.1 carries. That’s a better rate than Alvin Kamara (9.8) and Derrick Henry (11.1).
Chubb missed time with a knee injury early in the season, but from his return in Week 10 on he was the RB5 in half-PPR leagues. Chubb is the rare exception as a player that doesn’t need consistent receiving work to be a star fantasy asset. He has a real chance to lead the league in rushing this year.
Value: A perennial value, Jarvis Landry is fit to man the FLEX position in fantasy leagues yet again.
Offenses historically take a step forward in the second year of an offensive system, which should bode well for the receiver who spent the most time in it last season. People are happy to designate the Browns as a run-first team, but that’s not the case. Kevin Stefanski calls rushing plays to set up the deep passing game, which Baker Mayfield excelled at last year. Stefanski did the same thing with his time in Minnesota.
Landry won’t catch those deep balls, but he will be the possession receiver underneath. The Browns also dealt with several games of strong winds that completely derailed the passing attack. That might not change — they still play in Cleveland, after all — but it was still an outlier that cost Landry fantasy points through no fault of his own.
And hey, Odell Beckham Jr. tends to miss time. Should that happen, Landry is talented enough to provide high-end WR3 value.
Sleeper: Cleveland’s most expensive signing of the 2020 offseason didn’t exactly hit the ground running but that doesn’t mean Austin Hooper should be forgotten.
The Stefanski system utilizes tight ends constantly, and while Hooper was primarily used as an in-line blocker he’s capable of more. This isn’t out of hand, either — Hooper had an effective stretch of games over the final three weeks of the season — he was the TE4 over that span. That’s a small sample size, but it was Hooper’s first year in the system with an abbreviated offseason and he dealt with some injuries.
Hooper will still split time with Harrison Bryant and David Njoku since Stefanski utilizes multi-TE sets. But just two years ago Hooper was the TE6. Three years ago? The TE6. It’s possible for Hooper to become a streaming candidate as a potential TE1, and he’s free in drafts as the TE21 and the 200th player off the board.
Bust: I’m done drafting or counting on Odell Beckham Jr.
The former Giants star has not lived up to his fantasy ADP since 2016. For a reference on how long ago that was, Lamar Miller was being drafted in the first round of fantasy drafts. There’s little reason to expect Beckham to change that trend now after another serious knee injury (torn ACL) as he enters his age-29 season.
The ceiling we saw from five years ago no longer exists. Beckham won’t have a large enough target share of a limited passing pie to have the ceiling that warrants a WR25 ADP. It’s been too long since we have seen dominance from Beckham to spend a fifth-round pick on him, particularly with the injury history he carries. If he stays healthy, he should beat his ADP by a bit — but not to the level that warrants the price and that “if” should be capitalized.
Must-draft: The 2020 wide receiver class is currently remembered by budding stars like Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb, but Tee Higgins had a productive rookie season too, racking up over 900 yards while dealing with subpar quarterback play for six games.
Make no mistake; Higgins is the WR1 on this team right now. Ja’Marr Chase will have his games, and Tyler Boyd will get his targets, but Higgins is a talent who proved his rookie year that he needs the ball in his hands. He can get downfield just as easily as he can demand targets in the shorter ends of the field in a possession capacity.
Finally, disregard any notion that Chase eats into Higgins. A.J. Green voided 104 targets when he left to join Arizona, plenty for Chase to pick up without infringing on Higgins. When Chase and Higgins are going essentially back-to-back, I’ll draft the player who proved it on the NFL level already.
Value: Tyler Boyd is being left for dead in drafts, and I don’t quite understand it.
I get that Boyd lacks the upside of the dynamic outside duo of Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, but productivity cuts three ways in Cincinnati. No team has utilized three wide receiver sets more than the Bengals, and Boyd has the slot role on lockdown.
Besides, Boyd has done it. He’s been a reliable asset for a couple of years now and was fantastic with Joe Burrow last year. Boyd was the WR17 through the first 11 weeks. Seven of those 11 weeks Boyd was in the top-24 — he was a consistent producer.
The addition of Chase might cap the week-to-week ceiling of Boyd, but with his role in the slot secure in a pass-happy offense, Boyd should still return great value on his WR36 ADP. Consider him like Juju Smith-Schuster, except he’s going a round later with a better quarterback in a friendlier offense.
Sleeper: Joe Burrow is on everyone’s radar as a breakout, people love the Bengals wide receivers and expect a heavy workload for Joe Mixon.
So why not give a shoutout to C.J. Uzomah? He was the TE11 averaging over 12 fantasy points a game through the first two weeks of the season before succumbing to a torn Achilles.
Odds are there isn’t enough volume even in Cincinnati to support Uzomah, but he should take the starting job back from Drew Sample with ease given Sample’s limitations as a receiver. He will run routes in a pass-happy offense that will have positive game scripts to boost attempts. He’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly if one of the three Bengals wideouts misses time.
Bust: He was my WR1 in the 2021 class, but Ja’Marr Chase won’t be on my fantasy rosters this fall.
People are drafting Chase with a breakout in mind, but the reality is that rookie receivers take time to produce. Even Justin Jefferson was the WR26 through the first five weeks of the season, of which only one of those games was inside the top-24.
Chase might be a great trade target but spending a sixth-round pick is too rich for my taste when I can draft the other Bengals wideouts rounds later.
Since 2012, there have been nine wide receivers drafted in the top-10 of the NFL Draft.
- Justin Blackmon (WR89)
- Tavon Austin (WR55)
- Sammy Watkins (WR27)
- Mike Evans (WR13)
- Amari Cooper (WR21)
- Kevin White (Injured)
- Corey Davis (WR86)
- Mike Williams (WR137)
- John Ross (Mostly injured, saw two targets in three games)
Make of that what you will, and you can argue that Chase is the best prospect of the bunch. But only two of those names beat Chase’s current ADP of WR27.