The Fantasy Trenches –AFC North Edition

By Elliott Anderson (@Darthpichi)

With the exception of the Pittsburg Steelers, the AFC North division is filled with uncertainty. There is plenty of fantasy value in the north but to what extent is the question. Joe Flacco and his receiving corps have the potential to produce big numbers in Baltimore.  Meanwhile Cleveland has focused on the trenches to help torpedo the Dog Pound into respectable waters.  With the addition of Joe Mixon at running back and perennial fantasy darling A.J. Green in Cincy, the offense in poised to shine.  But the hogs have a lot to prove in order for that group to thrive. Then there are the Steelers. Pittsburgh potentially has the number one receiver and running back in the fantasy universe in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell [Editor’s Note: Only Peachy can bring you this type of breaking news!].  I know it’s the summer but put on your gloves and beanie because it tends to get a little nippy in the north.    

 Pittsburg Steelers

Rush YPG: 110.0(14th)

Pass YPG: 263(tied for 5th)

Sacks Allowed: 21(2nd)

Key Losses: None

Key Additions: None

What can you say about a unit that protects some of the most sought after fantasy assets in the game? Is it a coincidence that the Steelers offensive line is considered one of the most dominant in the league while producing two potential top five picks in almost every fantasy draft on the face of the plant? I think not. Maukice Pouncey (C) and David DeCastro (G) are considered two of the best at their respective positions.   Up and comer Alejandro Villanueva (LT) allowed only one sack through the final ten games of the 2016 season. The hogs in Steel City allowed only 21 sacks last season while producing the sixth ranked stuff rate in the NFL. What does this mean for fantasy owners? The answer is easy, draft Steelers early and often. Barring injury, Antonio Brown and Lev Bell are locked into being ones at their positions.  Martavis Bryant has wide receiver one upside if he can follow the advice of First Lady Nancy Reagan [Editor’s Note:  Seriously, who else will give you a Nancy Reagan Reference?] and just say no. It’s no secret that Roethlisberger’s home/road splits are horrific and there’s no reason to believe that will change in 2017.  However, Pittsburg’s offensive line’s ability to keep him on his feet makes him a viable streaming option when the Steelers are at Heinz Field. Just don’t reach for Big Ben. There’s no reason to overthink any fantasy football decision involving Pittsburg’s skill players a this group of offensive lineman make drafting Steelers an easy call.  

Baltimore Ravens

Rush YPG: 91.4(28th)

Pass YPG: 256(12th)

Sacks Allowed: 33(tied for 13th)

Key Losses: Ricky Wagner (T)

Key Additions: Nico Siragusa (G)

It’s no secret that Joe Flacco loves to sling the rock all over the field. He throws one of the best deep balls in the league and is not afraid test NFL secondaries on any down. While Kenneth Dixon began to show promise in the second half of last season as a potential bellcow, game script forced the Ravens to be a pass first team. The offensive line ranked 6th in QB pressures last season who were anchored by Marshal Yanda. Yanda has been ranked the number 1 guard in football by Pro Football Focus three straight years and the young and extremely talented LT Ronnie Stanley and LG Alex Lewis began to come into their own.  There is no argument that losing right tackle Ricky Wagner to Buffalo was a blow to the Raven’s offensive line but word out of Baltimore’s front office is that they are not done upgrading this group. The offense lost a true leader and adversary to father time in Steve Smith Sr., but added Jeremy Maclin to their receiving core this offseason.  Flacco might be exactly what Maclin needs to rejuvenate his career and once again put him in the conversation as one of the league’s top wide outs. Baltimore ranked 17th in stuff rate last season but this is a misleading number. Their backfield was in turmoil the first half of the year before finding its groove feeding Dixon.  Not to mention, the O-line was not completely healthy either. Danny Woodhead and Terence West will split work while Dixon serves a four game suspension for testing positive for PEDs. Woodhead will be an extremely useful tool out of the backfield as a receiver even upon Dixon’s return. He is an extremely resourceful back that adds a matchup nightmare for any defense the Ravens face.

Cincinnati Bengals

Rush YPG: 110.6(13th)

Pass YPG: 246(15th)

Sacks Allowed: 41(tied for 25th)

Key Losses: Andrew Whitworth (LT), Kevin Zeitler (G)

Key Additions: Andre Smith (T) FA

On paper, this might be the offensive line that was most negatively affected by free agency. I’m a pretty optimistic guy but things are not looking good in Cincinnati. The Bengals already had the 27th ranked pressure rating and allowed for their running backs to be hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on one out of every five plays.  That was before losing former All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and PFF’s 2nd team All Pro guard Kevin Zeitler.  Needless to say, there are large shoes to fill in this group and even larger question marks for this offense as a whole. The return of Andre Smith at tackle might help to ease the bleeding, but he played only 4 games last season in Minnesota after injuring his arm.  On a positive note, the Bengals have plenty of weapons on offense after drafting speedy wide out John Ross with the 9th overall pick and game changing talent at running back Joe Mixon in the second round. These two offensive standouts, in addition to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, second year receiver Tyler Boyd, Gio Bernard, and Jeremy Hill will give Andy Dalton plenty of options. Unfortunately there are still questions about many of these players as well. Gio is recovering from ACL surgery, Hill has seen his production dip significantly since his rookie campaign and Eifert struggles to keep himself off of the trainer’s table. There is consistency in the Cincinnati coaching staff and having a veteran presence at the quarterback position with Andy Dalton will give this squad a fighting chance in a tough division. We’ll have to pay close attention to the Bengals during camp and see how the offensive line fares in the preseason. There is plenty of fantasy potential here but if Dalton doesn’t have time to let routes develop or a solid run game to keep defenses honest it will be a long season of draft regret for those of us that took a chance on the Bengals (A.J. excluded).

Cleveland Browns

Rush YPG: 107.0(19th)

Pass YPG: 204(28th)

Sacks Allowed: 66(32nd)

Key Losses: None

Key Additions: Kevin Zeitler (G) FA, J.C. Tretter (C) FA

Analyzing the Brown’s offensive line is an extremely tricky task. Cleveland was in the bottom five of almost every offensive scoring metric in 2016. This explains why they had the 1st pick in this year’s NFL draft. The root of their struggles lies in the fact that there is no consistency at QB which makes it extremely difficult for this unit to have any rhythm offensively. It is surprising that the one bright spot for Cleveland was its ability to run the ball. This will likely continue with the addition of PFF’s 2nd team All Pro guard Kevin Zeitler from division rival Cincinnati and center J.C. Tretter via the Packers. They also signed Joel Bitonio to an extension to shore up the interior of the O-line.  Left tackle, which some debate is the second most important position in football, is held down by ten time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. To say this group has improved over the offseason would be a vast understatement but they have yet to work together in pads.   That is invaluable for any offensive line unit. This group looks like it could be in the conversation as one of the best in football but we are forced to take into consideration that the signal caller dilemma is still a major concern. The trifecta of Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and 2nd round pick DeShone Kizer makes for a muddled situation behind center once again for the Browns. They will be forced to lean on the run game.  This makes Isaiah Crowell a break out candidate with a much improve offensive line forging holes for him. Crowell ran for nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns on 198 carries last season.  This was good for 4.8 YPC, a respectable number considering that most defenses stacked the box against Cleveland’s QB of the week. I’m hesitant to jump on the “Cleveland is getting better” bandwagon because we need to remember…it is the Browns we’re talking about. However management seems to be doing the right things and spending 80 million dollars this offseason on the hogs is a great start.