If you were to do a divisional stock watch and bar graph on the AFC North, it likely would look like an EKG printout for Richard Simmons.
That’s because the values of the four squads in the division are all over the place. The Steelers continue to produce at a premium. The Ravens are looking for an upswing in value. The Browns are finally starting to look respectable – somewhat. The Bengals, well, they’re flat lining somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Like a well-maintained Mustang V8, the Steelers continue to fire on all cylinders.
The passing game behind Ben Roethlisberger is hard to beat. Mike Wallace has emerged as a legit WR1 and continues to be underappreciated on draft day. Big Ben is another offensive weapon that deserves some more love when choosing players. Few put up the consistency that Roethlisberger does, and as younger passing game components such as Emmanual Sanders and Antonio Brown hit their respective strides, Big Ben will be all the more dangerous from a fantasy standpoint.
The running game hasn’t missed a beat, either. Rashard Mendenhall silenced his critics with a solid season using the downhill style that the Steelers crave in a back. He does lack in passing game stats and should be downgraded just a tick in PPR formats.
Heath Miller, as the team’s tight end, can be the most erratic on the offense in a fantasy sense. He’ll have a big game and then disappear for several weeks. He isn’t a guy you want to rely on week to week, but could be a decent bye week fill-in if the matchup is right and the stars align.
Baltimore Ravens: Like the Steelers, the Ravens are known for their defense. Also like the Steelers, the team is working towards improving the image of its offense.
Joe Flacco is a unique quantity in fantasy. He goes fairly cheap in most every format, but quietly has the potential to have a decent season. For one, the Ravens have worked to improve their passing options. While Anquan Boldin seems to have lost a step from his earlier Cardinal days, the squad has obtained former Bills speedster Lee Evans and added one of the most intriguing rookie receivers in the draft in Torrey Smith.
The tight end situation should provide Flacco some check-down options, as well. Both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are neck-and-neck in the starting race and both should provide some offensive outlet.
Helping Flacco, too, will be Ray Rice and the running game. Rice has been known for his speed, playmaking ability and PPR supremacy. This year, as the team moves on without red zone vulture Willis McGahee and added a sporadic Ricky Williams, Rice will be expected to do more scoring. Some worry that this will add too much extra pounding for the 5-foot-8, 212-pound back. Others are licking their lips in anticipation of yet another statistical uptick.
The offense as a whole should provide Flacco with plenty of upside and makes him a decent later-round sleeper option at signal caller.
Cleveland Browns: Let the divisional dropoff begin. While the Browns are headed in the right direction, they still have light years to go before realistically contending against the Steelers and Ravens.
I’ve been beating around the bush in previous columns at www.chinstrapninjas.com, but let me be more frank here. Peyton Hillis won’t be seeing the major statistical letdown that so many other sites are predicting in 2011. Sure, his 2010 stats were so out there that we can all expect a backslide. However, don’t be surprised if that downtick in stats isn’t as big as one would think.
For one, Hillis’ backfield competition isn’t exactly as stiff as once thought. Montario Hardesty has been really slow in his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. Don’t expect him to do a whole lot for the foreseeable future. Brandon Jackson, brought in because the team was concerned about Hardesty’s slow rebound, has suffered preseason turf toe and may wind up on the injured reserve. This job is Hillis’ to lose.
And the Browns actually don’t have too terrible of a schedule this year, especially for running backs. Games against the Bengals and Colts start out the season, and Hillis should also fare well against the Raiders, Seahawks, 49ers, Texans, Rams and Cardinals.
And Hillis is entering the final year of his rookie contract, meaning he has plenty to play for in 2011.
The rest of the Browns offense is a question mark. I personally am liking Colt McCoy in a waiver wire bye-week fill-in sort of way. He’s shown some maturity late last season and in preseason action so far this year. His weapons are a little less glamorous.
Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi has been primed to break out for a while, but continues to underwhelm. A bone chip in his ankle this preseason has slowed the curve even more. Still, he has plenty of talent. As does Brian Robiskie, another post-hype option who may be primed to make a fantasy impact of some degree.
Cincinnati Bengals: The punchline of both the AFC North and the NFL, the Bengals have burned bridges with previous talent and currently looks to a very young squad to navigate the minefield of the 2011 season.
Rookie Andy Dalton may become a decent NFL and fantasy QB at some point, but will have quite a lot of adversity in his first NFL season – too much to count on him for any fantasy assistance.
Fellow rookie A.J. Green has the build and ability to be one of a few receivers who could produce decent numbers in his first season. Except, on this squad, it is more unlikely than ever. He will have some good games, especially in garbage time as the Bengals attempt to play catch up. Don’t expect anything more than sporadic WR3 numbers though, with maybe a few WR2 games.
The running game is nothing to get excited about, either. Cedric Benson has about as much burst as an aging Holstein with hoof rot. If you are counting on him as one of your fantasy starters, you might want to rethink your strategy. Bernard Scott continues to put up better yards per carry averages than Benson and maybe one day the Bengals will wake up to the fact that he may be worth a primary role. In the mean time, he is more of a fantasy project option until Benson is either hurt or finally gets the hook.
Fantasy MVP: Peyton Hillis, CLE. (Yes, Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall will likely score more points, but you have to use a first-round pick on them, making them less of a value)
Fantasy rookie of the year: AJ Green, CIN. (Don’t have a lot of options here. Green will feel pressure this season, but not as much as Dalton on every passing down. There will be a decent amount of garbage time for Green to get stats, just temper expectations to a degree.)
Fantasy sleepers: Emmanuel Sanders, PIT (If he can get past preseason dings, could surpass Hines Ward and become a decent option); Joe Flacco, BAL (Considering his low ADP and improved weapons, he is primed to be a good value option in 2011); Mohamed Massaqoui, CLE (someone needs to be the main target of young and improving Colt McCoy – why not this post-hype sleeper possibility?); Bernard Scott, CIN (Benson continues to be a ticking time bomb both in injuries and off-field miscues … Scott will produce well if the opportunity arise).
Fantasy bust: Cedric Benson, CIN (I don’t own him in a single league, and for good reason. He barely averages over three yards per carry and still is being drafted at a point where people will be relying on him as a fantasy starter. Ick.)
Comeback player of the year: Anquan Boldin, BAL (I am not expecting him to be a solid fantasy WR1 again, but he should bounce back into respectability after a sub-par 2010 thanks to Lee Evans and Torrey Smith opening up the field.)