The AFC North is full of interesting storylines heading into 2016. Can Le’Veon Bell stay healthy and return to his dominant 2014 form? What happened to Jeremy Hill last year? Can Andy Dalton keep up his solid play from 2015? Who in the world is going to produce fantasy points in Baltimore? Can Hue Jackson resurrect RGIII’s career? Can Duke Johnson make “the leap?” What will Corey Coleman do in his first year? The AFC North Fantasy Preview is here to help clear up some of these question marks and give you the necessary information to help you form your own opinion.
Coaching Staff: John Harbaugh returns for his ninth year manning the Ravens sideline. During Harbaugh’s tenure with the team, they’ve finished with a winning record in six out of the eight years, but ended last season below .500 for the first time. Marc Trestman returns for year number two as offensive coordinator. Despite Joe Flacco missing six games, Trestman’s offense still finished 2015 with the most pass attempts in the entire NFL. Expect more of the same in 2016.
QB: Joe Flacco returns from a torn ACL and all signs point to him being ready for training camp. With high volume on his side, Flacco could end up being a draft day bargain at his current ADP of QB26 and 14.10 overall. While his pass catchers are still a question mark, we know there are plenty of options available. If you want a piece of the Ravens’ offense without having to worry about the uncertainty at the skill positions, Flacco is your man.
RB: I’m not a believer in Justin Forsett. He’s a journeyman RB who had a career year in 2014 under RB friendly offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak. Before missing the final 6 games due to injury last year, Forsett struggled to replicate his 2014 numbers without Kubiak there. Meanwhile, Baltimore drafted two 4th Round RBs, Javorius “Buck” Allen in 2015, and Kenneth Dixon in 2016. Offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, has a history of targeting his RBs heavily in the passing game, so it’s no surprise that both Allen and Dixon are capable pass catchers. I don’t expect Forsett to remain the starting RB in Baltimore for long. Monitor this RB situation in training camp and the preseason. For now, Allen’s ADP of RB44 and 10.09 overall and Dixon’s ADP of RB56 and 13.04 overall are both very enticing. I’m not normally a proponent of drafting two RBs from the same backfield, but if you share my Forsett concerns, it’s a strategy worth considering since both Allen and Dixon’s ADPs are in the double digit rounds. To be fair though, if you’re a believer in Forsett, his ADP doesn’t break the bank as he currently sits at RB31 and 7.05 overall. At the very least, whoever ends up as the Ravens’ starting RB is likely getting pelted with targets. Forsett and Allen combined for a total of 103 targets last season.
WR: Baltimore’s 2015 first round pick, Breshad Perriman, missed his entire rookie season due to a PCL injury. Recovery hit a major setback when Perriman reportedly partially tore his ACL during OTAs in mid-June. He recently received a stem cell injection which is believed to help allow the ACL to heal on it’s own, allowing him to play in the 2016 season. Still, until we see Perriman do something on an NFL field, it’s very hard for me to trust him. Another Baltimore WR recovering from injury, Steve Smith, recently expressed doubt in his ability to return for 2016. This isn’t exactly surprising as Smith is 37 years old and trying to come back from a torn Achilles. When Smith was right he was one of the better WRs in NFL history, but at his current ADP of WR38 and 8.07 overall, I’m OK with letting someone else take the gamble. Mike Wallace comes over from Minnesota and is an intriguing late round flier due to his ADP of WR63 and 13.09 overall. His speed would seem to fit well with Joe Flacco’s big arm. However, I doubt I’ll own many shares of Wallace since I just don’t think he’s very good anymore. That leaves Kamar Aiken, who led the team in catches, receiving yards, and receiving TDs last season. At his current ADP of WR54 and 11.12 overall, Aiken could be a major steal, and a league winner if he remains Baltimore’s WR1 due to the circumstances, just as he was in the second half of 2015. One last player to keep an eye on is Baltimore’s 4th Round pick, Chris Moore, who has very high scores according to PlayerProfiler.com. If Perriman and Smith struggle to return from their injuries, Chris Moore could become relevant at some point during his rookie season.
TE: The Ravens have plenty of options at the TE position. Benjamin Watson comes over from New Orleans, Dennis Pitta finally looks like he will return after fracturing his hip twice, Crockett Gillmore showed flashes when healthy last season, and Maxx Williams was a 2015 2nd round pick for Baltimore. This is definitely a position worth monitoring during training camp and the preseason. Ben Watson has to be the favorite right now to win the starting job after posting career highs in catches and yards last year while in New Orleans. Watson has a chance to lead the Ravens in TD catches, making him an interesting late-round flier, or name to keep in mind on the waiver wire.
Coaching Staff: Marvin Lewis returns for his 14th year as head coach of the Bengals. That kind of stability at the head coaching position is extremely rare in today’s NFL. That stability will come in handy as the Bengals are yet again dealing with the loss of a talented offensive coordinator for the 2nd time in three years. Jay Gruden left after the 2013 season to become the head coach in Washington. Now, Hue Jackson not only left, but stayed within the division to become the head coach in Cleveland. Ken Zampese takes over for Jackson with only one year of experience as an offensive coordinator, and that was back in 1995 at Northern Arizona. However, he has served as the Bengals QBs coach for the last thirteen years, meaning he has been alongside Marvin Lewis every step of the way in Cincinnati. One would also think Zampese and Andy Dalton have built up a rapport since he has served as Dalton’s QB coach during his entire NFL career to date.
QB: Speaking of Andy Dalton, he was headed towards a career year in 2015 before his season was cut short due to a late season injury. According to Pro Football Reference, Dalton was on pace to finish with career bests in completion percentage, TD percentage, INT percentage, yards gained per pass attempt, adjusted yards gained per pass attempt, yards gained per pass completion, Quarterback Rating, and QBR. As pointed out in the Ultimate Draft Kit, Dalton was making a run at the overall QB1 last year before breaking his thumb. While it’s certainly possible Dalton carries his 2015 momentum into the upcoming season, the losses of Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones, and Mohammed Sanu along with the injury to Tyler Eifert have me skeptical. Dalton’s ranking of QB13 sounds about right to me.
RB: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard form one of the NFL’s most formidable RB duos. They’re both extremely fantasy relevant, and will continue to be since both of their roles are clearly defined. Hill is the between the tackles and goal line runner. Bernard sees a healthy amount of carries in the run game as well, and is a great pass-catcher out of the backfield. Their ADPs on Fantasy Football Calculator prove that the fantasy community at large understands this. Hill’s price is RB26 and 6.01 overall while Bernard’s price is RB28 and 6.05 overall. What these extremely close ADPs also tell me though, is that the fantasy community really has no idea which of these two backs will emerge in 2016. Perhaps neither will, as their specified roles will, for the most part, even out by the end of the year. However, I’m big on Bernard heading into 2016, especially in 0.5 PPR leagues. Bernard saw only 8 fewer targets than Eifert did last season. With Eifert uncertain for the start of 2016, Bernard could overtake him and possibly become the second highest targeted player on the Bengals behind only A.J. Green. Bernard also has the added benefit of most likely becoming Cincinnati’s workhorse back if Jeremy Hill were to go down with an injury whereas if the opposite were to occur, Hill’s role likely wouldn’t change much at all.
WR: The offseason wasn’t exactly kind to the Bengals, as they saw WRs Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu walk out the door in free agency. Jones and Sanu saw a combined 152 targets last year, and those targets are now up for grabs heading into 2016. Likely replacing Jones and Sanu, are journeyman Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd. While the duo will certainly absorb some of those available targets, there’s a real possibility that both struggle in 2016. With uncertainty as to whether star TE Tyler Eifert will be able to begin the season after undergoing ankle surgery at the end of May, the real winner here is A.J. Green. Look for Green to approach and possibly break his career high in targets of 178 that he set back in 2013. Green has posted double-digit TDs in every year he’s played all 16 games.
A.J. Green’s Career Stats
Look for that to continue in 2016, as all signs point to Green having a career year.
TE: There is uncertainty as to whether Tyler Eifert will be able to begin the season after undergoing ankle surgery at the end of May. There is definitely some risk involved in investing in Eifert for 2016. I’m not sure I’m willing to pay his current price of ADP TE4 and 6.03 overall. Eifert is very good, but he falls in-between my two current TE draft strategies. If I don’t get Gronk or Jordan Reed, the next guy I look to target is Coby Fleener. Unless Eifert’s ADP starts to factor in more of an injury discount, I’ll let someone else take the gamble. As far as streaming Tyler Kroft to begin the season in the case that Eifert does miss time, I’m willing to bet there’s a better option out there in your league. Don’t overthink it.
Coaching Staff: Hue Jackson arrives to begin his second stint as a head coach in the NFL. He coached the Raiders for one year back in 2011. Even though he was fired, he still managed to lead, the Raiders of all teams, to a 7-4 start out of the gate and an eventual 8-8 finish. Since then, he has put in four solid years with the Cincinnati Bengals, the last two as offensive coordinator. Jackson has proven he knows how to coach the offensive side of the ball. That offensive prowess should come in handy as Jackson has already stated that he doesn’t plan to hire an offensive coordinator and will call the Browns’ plays.
QBs: I wrote up my thoughts on the Browns QB Camp Battle earlier this offseason. I prefer Josh McCown as the starter and believe his presence would actually provide a boost to the entire offense. I have my doubts that actually comes to fruition though. If you’re a Robert Griffin III believer (are there any of those left?), feel free to take a late round flier on him, as Hue Jackson’s presence combined with potential rushing production could provide a fantasy upside that few currently realize. However, in standard leagues, with all the other capable passers around the league, this murky QB situation makes it an easy one to avoid. We still don’t know who is going to be the Browns Week 1 starter and even when we do, there’s no guarantee that guy will keep the job for the entire season.
RB: Over the last four seasons in which Hue Jackson was either an offensive coordinator or head coach, his teams have never finished outside the top 7 in rushing attempts. This is good news for both Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell heading into 2016. Like Hill and Bernard, Crowell projects as the early down, between the tackles runner, and Johnson projects as the pass catching back. However, this committee isn’t nearly as set-in-stone. Johnson should also be heavily involved in the running game, and projects as having a better chance of becoming his team’s leading rusher whether an injury occurs or not. If that were to occur, Johnson would become a true three-down back. He quietly caught 61 balls as a rookie last season and, with a ton of question marks at WR heading into 2016, Johnson has a chance to increase his catch total in his second year. The difference in Johnson and Crowell’s ADPs suggest the fantasy community understands all of this. Johnson is currently going off the board as RB27 and 6.04 overall whereas Crowell is lasting more than three rounds later, going as RB42 and 9.11 overall. I’d rather pay up for Johnson, but if Crowell holds onto the early down work, volume alone should help him outperform his current ADP.
WR: In a somewhat surprising move, the NFL has conditionally reinstated Josh Gordon for the 2016 season. He will serve a 4 game suspension to begin the year, but as long as he stays clean (a big if with Gordon), he will be cleared for the final 12 games of the season. Due to multiple previous suspensions, Gordon has only played in 5 games over the past 2 years. In those 5 games, he looked out of shape and unmotivated. With that kind of rust and uncertainty, I highly doubt Gordon reaches his ceiling in 2016. Yet, that’s not necessarily a problem when we remember just how high Gordon’s ceiling can be. He caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and 9 TDs in only 14 games back in 2013. Still only 25 years old, there’s little doubt that if (some more big ifs) Gordon stays clean, is in shape, and is motivated, he could end up being a league winner. The price to acquire Gordon just got a lot steeper though. Matt Harmon recently suggested Gordon’s ADP will settle in as a 5th-7th rounder. I could see myself taking a shot on him at the end of the 7th, ahead of guys like Michael Crabtree, Kevin White, and Sterling Shepard, but probably no earlier than that. There will likely be somebody in every one of my leagues that’s more bullish on Gordon than me, and I’m OK with that. With Gordon missing the first month of the season due to suspension and likely needing another month just to get acclimated and back into regular season game shape, I’m perfectly fine missing out on Gordon at his soon-to-be elevated draft price. At the same time, I can’t fault anybody for chasing Gordon’s enticing ceiling.
The Browns also drafted four WRs in April’s NFL draft including 1st Round pick, Corey Coleman. Gordon and Coleman will likely form a 1A/1B situation when/if Gordon finally returns to form. Vegas set Cleveland’s win total over/under at 4.5 earlier this offseason, meaning the Browns will have to throw the ball all over the field while in catch-up mode. With Travis Benjamin, Brian Hartline, and Dwayne Bowe no longer on the team, 215 targets from last season are up for grabs. There should be plenty of targets available for both Gordon and Coleman to remain fantasy viable all season. Coleman’s ADP is sure to fall now that Gordon is back in the picture, creating an interesting buy-low opportunity. As for Andrew Hawkins, Terrelle Pryor, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton, and Rashard Higgins, they are all off the season-long fantasy radar with Gordon’s pending return.
TE: The pre-2015 NFL season version of myself wants to slap me for typing this, but Gary Barnidge is the man in Cleveland. Matthew Berry always does an amazing job with his “100 facts” column on ESPN and this year was no different. Perhaps my favorite stat from the entire column was this one:
“From Week 3 on, Barnidge had more catches than Allen Robinson and Mike Evans, more yards than Sammy Watkins and Jeremy Maclin, and more touchdowns than Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.”
Trust me, I’m just as bewildered as you are. Maybe even more perplexing, heading into last season, Barnidge’s career high in targets in a single season was 25. TWENTY FIVE. He finished 2015 with 125 targets, 100 more than he had ever seen in any one season. This wouldn’t be as surprising if Barnidge was a really young player, yet 2015 marked his seventh year in the league. Barnidge enters 2016 as one of the more polarizing players to try and figure out. I can see both sides. He was either a flash in the pan last year and will regress due to likely poor QB play, or he will yet again be a focal point of the offense due to so much transition at the WR position. I doubt I will own Barnidge in very many leagues, but what say you?
Coaching Staff: Mike Tomlin returns for his tenth year in Pittsburgh. He and offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, make up one of the better coaching duos in the NFL. Stability often times can be a positive for an offense as they are able to learn and grow within the same system year after year. The Steelers have had that luxury as 2016 will mark Tomlin and Haley’s fifth year in a row together. Look for the Steelers offense to yet again be one of the better units in the entire league.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger is a very good player and he has the luxury of throwing the ball to arguably the best WR in the NFL. Yet, I still think he’s being a bit over drafted right now with an ADP of QB5 and 6.04 overall. Earlier this offseason, I was considering the possibility of Big Ben finishing as the overall QB1 this year. Yet, after news broke of Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension, that thought quickly faded. I think Roethlisberger’s ADP reflects fantasy owners being slow to realize the ramifications of the loss of Bryant. Still, he should have a very good year as the Steelers will be in the running for best offense in 2016.
RB: We recently learned Le’Veon Bell will be suspended for the first 4 games of the regular season. While owners investing in Bell will have to burn a roster spot for the first month of the season, this news might not be all bad. Bell’s last two seasons have ended due to major knee injuries. Most recently, his right knee was surgically repaired last November after injuring both his MCL and PCL. He recently stated he wants to be able to “cut and run freely” before reporting to training camp. That statement would suggest that he is not currently able to do those things. His suspension gives him another month to heal before being thrust back into regular season NFL action, which could end up being a positive in the long run. We know how good he can be when healthy. Bell has proven he can be a true workhorse back in an era where they are hard to find. His rushing production speaks for itself, but Bell also caught 83 passes back in 2014. Bell’s ADP is sure to slip now that his suspension has been announced, creating an interesting “buy low” opportunity for a potential league winning player come fantasy playoff time.
As for DeAngelo Williams, he proved last year he’s the most valuable HAYUNDCUFF! in all of fantasy football. He gets that same opportunity again for the first 4 games of 2016. Williams was a stud last year without Bell and there is no reason to believe anything will change this time around. Owners who invest in Williams will receive a RB1 for the first month of the season at a discounted price. His performance in the 2nd half of last season without Bell in the lineup was likely going to earn him more playing time anyways, but these recent developments could expand his role in the offense even more later in the season. I’ll be starting to consider Williams in drafts around the 5th or 6th round moving forward. Whether I actually draft him there remains to be seen, but I suggest you at least have him on your radar around that range as well. Just as Bell can be a league winner, so can Williams if Bell were to get injured for a third consecutive year.
Brown surpassed Rice in both catches and receiving yards and only trailed in the TD department. More recently, Brown has been the most targeted wide receiver in the league over the past two seasons combined, seeing 181 and 193 targets respectively. He finished both of those seasons as the overall WR1 according to the UDK’s Premium Wide Receiver Rankings. Look for him to make it three in a row atop the WR leaderboard, as he could see 200+ targets with Bryant out of the lineup. I don’t think becoming the first WR ever to reach 2,000 receiving yards is out of reach for Brown either. Pass on today’s version of Jerry Rice at your own risk. Meanwhile, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, and Darrius Heyward-Bey round out the Steelers relevant WRs. Wheaton and Coates are very intriguing as they both have a chance to win the WR2 job. Wheaton’s ADP is currently WR41 and 9.02 overall and Coates’ ADP is WR56 and 12.11 overall. Between the two, I’d rather take the value of getting Coates almost four rounds later than what it would take to invest in Wheaton.
TE: Lost behind the media coverage of NFL legends such as Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, and Marshawn Lynch hanging up their cleats, was Heath Miller quietly retiring as well after 11 solid years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ladarius Green now replaces Miller after he was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal in free agency. Finally out of Antonio Gates’ shadow, could this be the year Green puts it all together? If he can stay healthy, he has double-digit TD upside in the Steelers’ high-powered attack, especially with Martavis Bryant out of the lineup. His health does seem to be a concern, however. Green has missed 5 games over the past two years and is currently recovering from offseason ankle surgery. His current ADP of TE11 and 9.03 overall sounds about right for a player of his magnitude. Boom or bust players generally seem to find a way into the middle of positional rankings and Green is no different in this case.