Last season was a unique year in that it was the first time since 1999 that neither the Steelers nor the Ravens made the playoffs (thanks Ryan Succop). While both these teams will look to make sure that doesn’t happen again, the Bengals will try to avenge three straight first round playoff exits and Johnny Manziel will look to lead the Browns to their first playoff appearance since 2002. Today we begin our fantasy outlook on the AFC North and try to piece together which players will be assets to your squad this year.
These players are the tried and true studs that are capable of carrying your team each and every week.
Josh Gordon – As you already know, he probably won’t play this year. All the sads...
A.J. Green – Below is the list of players that have done what A.J. Green has done (260recs/3833yds/29TDs) in their first 3 seasons. Short list, huh? Not even Andy Dalton can stop A.J. Green from being great. Green is still somewhat handicapped by Dalton, which is enough excuse for me to take guys like Calvin, Demaryius, and Dez ahead of him.
Le’Veon Bell – While some will try to sell you on LeGarrette Blount having a big role, Bell showed us last year that he’s capable of being a workhorse in Todd Haley’s offense. After missing 3 games due to a foot injury, Bell saw no fewer than 18 touches in any of the Steelers’ final 13 games. The Steelers also plan to utilize the no-huddle offense more this year, which is another boost to Bell’s value. Blount could be a nuisance around the goal-line, but Bell is still in line for 280+ touches.
Antonio Brown – Two Steelers find their way into this section, and for good reason. Brown was the only other player aside from Pierre Garcon to haul in at least 5 passes in every game last season. He’ll be in line once again to flirt with 100 receptions. While it would be nice to see him improve inside the redzone, as only one of his 8 TDs came from inside the 20 (23 RZ targets), he’s very capable of getting by on yards and receptions alone.
Giovani Bernard – I hesitated to include Gio on this list, but I’m starting to believe that he is going to be unleashed with Hue Jackson taking over as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. Grinders Jeremy Hill and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will battle for carries as well, but Gio is the guy that will make Hue’s offense go. Hue was in charge of the offense in Oakland when Darren McFadden had his best years. McFadden averaged 5.27ypc (!!!) from 2011-2012 and nearly 90 rushing yards per game. An underrated offensive mastermind, count on Hue finding plenty of ways to get his best running back the ball. If he can manage just 3 more touches per game this year (17, up from 14), he’ll likely produce like a top 10 running back.
These guys won’t carry your team every week, but you’re going to enjoy having them around.
Jordan Cameron – I think it’s a lock that Cameron leads the Browns in every receiving category without Josh Gordon around. As long as he stays healthy, it’s going to be difficult for him to not finish among the top-5 tight ends.
Andy Dalton/Ben Roethlisberger – This duo quietly finished among the top 10 quarterbacks in fantasy points scored in 2013. Even more surprising is that Dalton was the #3 overall quarterback. This speaks loudly to the fantastic squad that they have built around him. While I would bet heavily against him even finishing inside the top 5 again this year, he and Ben will always be underrated among fantasy circles. At this point they can be had in the 12th round as the 17th and 19th quarterbacks off the board, respectively.
Torrey Smith – I predicted a WR1 type breakout for Torrey last year, and it just didn’t happen. While he easily set career highs in receptions (65) and yards (1128), his 4 touchdowns were the biggest disappointment. He only managed to convert 3 of his 17 redzone targets into touchdowns (17.7%), while his first two years in the league he converted 8 of his 20 redzone targets (40%). A breakout is still in the picture for the 4th year pro, but even if that never happens, he’ll provide solid WR2 numbers.
Dennis Pitta – Pitta is another Ravens’ pass catcher that the fantasy community hoped for a breakout year from in 2013. Unfortunately, Pitta was sidelined for most of the year due to a hip injury. Flacco sorely missed him on his way to his worst passing season as a pro. Pitta leading the Ravens in receptions and touchdowns in 2014 is a very real possibility in Gary Kubiak’s offense.
Ben Tate - While the Browns did draft Terrance West and bring in Isaiah Crowell as an undrafted free agent, I still don’t see either pushing Tate out of the starting role unless it’s because of injury. While I know RumfordJohnny will tell me that’s optimistic (he’s a huge Crowell fan), I just don’t see them handing over the reins to him that quickly. The Browns will be wise to install a run-heavy approach in Manziel’s rookie season, especially without Josh Gordon, and rely on Pettine’s defense to keep them in games. Tate stands to benefit greatly from this approach. RB1 numbers are probably a stretch, but they definitely aren’t out of the picture.
Bernard Pierce/Ray Rice – It remains to be seen if Rice will be punished for his recent off-the-field incident. If he does, Pierce could easily run away with the job, given how bad Rice played in 2013. Pierce has drawn comparisons to Arian Foster—that’s optimistic, but also not a bad thing. I would bank on this being a fairly even timeshare, making Pierce a nice value if his current 9th round ADP holds. As far as Rice, don’t count on a major rebound back into RB1 territory. His 1659 touches since 2009 ranks 2nd behind only Chris Johnson’s 1720 touches. If he can avoid a suspension, he’ll still carry some RB2 potential.
Heath Miller – Forgotten somewhat in the Steelers’ offense, Miller will be another year recovered from his 2012 ACL injury. The Steelers will look to him as their primary redzone weapon, so a return to top 10 tight end status seems fairly certain. He’ll be an excellent fallback option if you decide to wait on a tight end until the tail end of your draft.
Marvin Jones – He emerged as an incredible weapon for Andy Dalton last year by converting a ridiculous 9 of his 14 redzone targets for touchdowns. Jones should see a nice bump in the mere 80 targets he saw last year, though the 10 touchdowns might be tough to repeat. Nevertheless, he has WR2 upside and can be had in the 12th round.
Joe Flacco – He’ll have some big passing games, but Gary Kubiak isn’t going to trot out an offense that depends on Joe Flacco dropping back to pass 40+ times a game. A limited passer that won’t do anything for you on the ground is not your ideal fantasy quarterback.
LeGarrette Blount – He could be penciled in as the Steelers’ goal line back, but he doesn’t offer much in terms of upside, as Le’Veon Bell will see a heavy workload in this offense. He would most certainly need a Bell injury to be a weekly asset.
Steve Smith – What’s the upside in drafting a 35-year old receiver who failed to top 70 yards in a single game last year? Smith will always be one of the better wide receivers to play the game, but betting on a big turnaround in Kubiak’s offense is not gonna win you fantasy championships.
Jeremy Hill/BenJarvus Green-Ellis – If this situation gets clearer as the fantasy season nears, then one could certainly manage some flex value. People always want the younger, unknown running back to emerge (Hill), but offensive coordinators love falling back on older veterans.
Miles Austin/Andrew Hawkins/Nate Burleson – Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Browns’ wide receivers! Don’t anticipate any emerging as better than a WR3. I’ll be looking elsewhere for production from the WR position in fantasy drafts.
Markus Wheaton – The Steelers seem intent on him opening the season as the #2 wide receiver. After struggling to even see the field in 2013 though, don’t bet on him being a strong fantasy asset, though he’ll be capable of a couple solid fantasy games.
These guys are relatively unknown and not necessarily in the best position depth chart wise, but an injury could potentially make them waiver wire heroes.
Terrance West/Isaiah Crowell – As stated above, this is still Tate’s job to lose, but these two will be pushing him for snaps. If Tate goes down because of an injury, one will emerge with immediate fantasy value.
Johnny Manziel – Don’t expect the world from him as a rookie, but he'll be a decent play in 2QB leagues because of his ability to pick up fantasy points with his feet. His wide receiving corps is very uninspiring, so QB1 type numbers are a longshot.
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