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32 Teams, 32 Questions: The AFC North

Dalton

The season is upon us, so we continue our little trip around the league and take a look at all 32 teams and address one of the biggest questions about each team that you need to be thinking about.

After all, in terms of dynasty leagues if you aren’t thinking about these things you’re already behind!

Previous editions:

NFC North
NFC South
NFC East
NFC West

In the not too distant past, the AFC North was known for its fearsome defenses, smash-mouth running style and no nonsense approach to playing the game. They were serious about football and you could tell from everything they did. Things have been fading a little bit for the division as of late. This last off-season, three of the four teams have found themselves answering questions about player conduct off the field, which is the last thing any team wants to do. I’m sure the front offices will be very glad to get back on the field and talk about playing the game. Speaking of talking about the game, it is time to take a look at the four teams.

Baltimore Ravens

Which season was the fluke for the offense, 2012 or 2013?

There is no other way to say it than to be rather blunt about it. The 2013 Ravens offense was bad. One year after winning the Super Bowl and signing Joe Flacco to a major deal, the offense went into the tank. They were 25th in points scored and 29th in yards gained. The Ravens weren’t ever a high powered offense, but when you compare those numbers to the 2012 numbers when they were tenth in points and 16th in yards, it was a definite drop off. The question we all need to figure out is which year’s production can we trust?

On the surface, there might be a few quick and easy explanations for what happened to the Ravens in 2013. From 2012 to 2013, several major changes impacted the offense. Anquan Boldin, thanks to the Flacco contract, had to take his talents and his team leading 65 receptions and 921 yards to San Francisco. The second most targeted player from 2012, Dennis Pitta, missed almost the entire season with a hip injury. In the backfield, both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce struggled through injuries and saw massive dropoffs in their effectiveness. The big money man himself, Joe Flacco also took a step back. About the only player to actually step up his game a noticeable amount was Torrey Smith.

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There are a few less obvious causes as well. Cam Cameron was a big part of the 2012 game planning and he was no longer with the team in 2013. A finger needs to be pointed at the offensive line as well. The retirement of Matt Birk shook things up as did the season ending injury to one of their guards. Toss in a new blocking scheme introduced prior to 2013 which might not have fit the strengths of the starting group and you get a mess up front which allowed the second most sacks in the NFL and a measly 3.1 yards per carry as a team.

That’s a whole lot of issues to fix if they want to get back to the 2012 offense which helped win the Super Bowl behind a dynamic defense. Let’s start with the skill position players.

The injuries seemed to have healed. Pitta played the last four games of 2013, managing 20 catches for 169 yards and 1 touchdown. While it isn’t mind blowing, it hints at him being back to full strength in 2014. Rice and Pierce have healed up as well, the latter having surgery on his shoulder. Rice is of course suspended for a few games (and should have been suspended for a whole lot more!) but Pierce seems more than capable of carrying the load. I think Pierce is the more talented back at this point in their careers and could take over the leading role. Outside of the injuries, Steve Smith has been brought in to take over the Boldin role but Torrey will be the top receiver on the team.

The offensive line is still a question mark though since it is largely the same mix of talent as the 2013 crew. The saving grace for the offensive line might be Gary Kubiak’s system. The offense, especially the running game, has been completely reworked by Kubiak and should be able to mask the deficiencies of the offensive line.

While the line isn’t a great unit by any means, when combined with the skill position guys getting healthy it should be good enough to help the Ravens get back to their 2012 form of being good but not great on the offensive side of the ball. Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Bernard Pierce are my fantasy targets on this team with the rest unlikely to be fantasy starters..

Cincinnati Bengals

Is Andy Dalton a guy who can continue to be a QB1 in fantasy leagues or was 2013 the byproduct of a great schemes by coordinators who are no longer there?

[inlinead]I don’t know of anyone who would have predicted at this time last year that Andy Dalton was going to finish the season as a top seven quarterback in most fantasy leagues. Coming out of college, most projected him as a very average starter at best. His lack of ideal size and arm strength were supposed to be major deterrents to him ever becoming a top option at the position both in fantasy leagues and in the NFL.

It is tough to argue with the production we have seen from him. In each of his three years he has shouldered more of the load, increased his yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns. He has shown to be reliable and durable as well, playing in all sixteen games each season. His team has also made the playoffs each of his three seasons in the league.

It is fair to wonder, were the original evaluations of Dalton way off or his his production been the byproduct of brilliant minds on the coaching staff?

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to separate the quarterback from the scheme when it comes to evaluations. Jay Gruden was fantastic in his construction of the Cincinnati offense over the last few years. For more detail on what he did, you can check out my review of his new team. Hue Jackson coming in is going to mean a drastically different scheme and we’ll get a better chance to figure out what this means for Dalton and where he belongs in the ranking of quarterbacks.

My guess is Dalton will end up closer to the quarterback we all expected him to be coming out of college than the quarterback he was in 2014. I don’t envision Jackson letting Dalton come close to the 586 passing attempts Dalton made last year, which was eighth most in the league. I expect Dalton to fall back to the middle of the pack in terms of attempts and be a little over 500 on the season. With his completion rate and yards per attempt being in the middle of the pack as well, fifteenth and twelfth respectively, it has the makings of a very average season. We are looking at around 3700 yards and somewhere around 26 touchdowns.That will drop him to QB2 status.

I think Dalton makes a good, but not great choice for a quarterback in fantasy leagues going forward. With the weapons around him, you know he has a high floor, but Jackson’s run first system is going to lower the ceiling quite a bit as well. If someone is willing to pay you QB1 prices for him I would jump at the chance. Otherwise he makes a very solid fantasy backup for a higher upside but more injury prone guy like RG3.

Cleveland Browns

The circus is in Cleveland! Who will actually be left standing and possess long term fantasy significance once the dust settles?

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months and haven’t noticed Cleveland getting more press than just about any other sports city in the country, here’s a super quick recap of the last 12 months. Their owner was indicted on federal crimes, they gave up on their third overall pick Trent Richardson and stole a first rounder from the Colts in exchange for him, they sign arguably the top free agent running back to replace him and then spend an early pick on another, Josh Gordon lights up the league in 2013 and then lights up a joint to celebrate, they higher a new head coach without any head coach experience and they bring in Johnny Manziel with his partying habits just for a little spice. If you want to toss in Lebron James coming back just for a cherry on top you can. Now imagine if this was all happening to an NFC East team! ESPN just might explode!

With all of that going on, what can we expect from the current crop of players on the team when it comes to their long term value?

Allow me to start with the position in charge of it all, the quarterback position. The preseason competition between Brian Hoyer and Manziel felt a little bit like watching a race between two old men in their walkers. Both were terrible but you know someone needs to win. I think Hoyer is a better quarterback than he showed during the preseason, and I think the Browns know that as well. For that reason, he is getting the title of starter for the time being, but he isn’t going to get a fair chance at the job. We all know it is only a matter of time before Manziel takes the job from him. The issue for me is I think Manziel is only average when it comes to physical gifts and way below average when it comes to mental and emotional maturity. He can’t handle the position and is likely to be a bust in my opinion. That makes neither one the quarterback to own in my book.

At running back, the free agent signing of Ben Tate seemed like the best case for the former Texan when it happened. A young, talented offensive line in front of him, ultra talented pass catchers to keep defenses honest and a clean depth chart at the running back position. The circus around him and the drafting of Terrance West along with the signing of Isaiah Crowell threw a bunch of cold water on the hype train. While Crowell is looking more and more like an afterthought with each passing day, West doesn’t seem to be going away. In fact, I think as soon as the yearly Ben Tate injury occurs, it will be West’s job from that point forward. He’s the running back to own in this backfield, and I wouldn’t be shocked if West was a top 10 running back on most boards heading into the 2015 season.

The receiver position might be the biggest mess of all. At the time of writing this, Josh Gordon’s appeal is still unsettled. I’m guessing he’s going to lose his appeal and be out for the whole season. I’m also going to go as far as to say this might be another Justin Blackmon situation where it could be longer than a year. From what we have heard, it sounds like Gordon has some addiction issues and possibly some mental health ones as well. If he’s given a year away from the game, he might never make it back. I don’t think he realizes just how serious the situation is and expect him to do something else foolish during that year.

The rest of the depth chart is filled with way past their prime guys in Miles Austin and Nate Burleson, several guys who barely belong on an NFL roster and Andrew Hawkins. The diminutive Hawkins is the only receiver worth owning at this point. He’ll finally get a chance to shine this season if for no other reason than lack of options. He has a dynamic skill set and cut turn into an excellent run after the catch guy working out of the slot. He could easily push for WR3 value in PPR leagues though his injury history is a bit of a concern.

The only skill position on the team which isn’t a circus is the tight end position. Jordan Cameron is going to need to help fill the void left by the lack of other options in the passing game. If he can stay healthy, he has a shot at upper end TE1 numbers. Outside of Cameron, my only targets on the team are West and Hawkins. I’m fully expecting the Browns to have one of the first picks in the 2015 NFL draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Antonio Brown stepped up in a big way in 2013. Can he keep it going in 2014 and will there be anyone else to help him out?

Very few people expected the 2013 breakout for Brown to be as big as it was. He was second in the league with 110 receptions and second in yards with 1499. Toss in 8 touchdowns and you get a top three season at the position in most fantasy leagues. Even more impressive to me was the consistency. He was the only receiver in the NFL to post at least five catches and at least 50 yards in every game. In other words he always scored double digit fantasy numbers in standard PPR leagues. No one else can claim that.

His supporting cast at the position is in a state of flux. The second and third leading receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, are playing for Denver and Carolina this year. Is Brown good enough to make up for the lack of experience through the rest of the depth chart? I definitely think so. Brown is dynamic with the ball in his hands and does a great job running his routes to create separation as evidenced by him having the fourth most yards after the catch of any wide receiver in the league. While I’m not going to guarantee a top five season from Brown, I think top 10 is easily within his reach once again in 2014. At only 25 years old, he really needs to be in your top 10 wide receivers on your dynasty rankings as well.

How are the Steelers going to make up for the losses of Sanders and Cotchery to help Brown out?

The very unsexy answer is Heath Miller. Miller obviously isn’t a dynamic option and he’ll turn 32 part way through the season, but he is a great fit for the Steelers. He managed 71 receptions, 816 yards and 8 scores during 15 games in 2012 and I would expect him to come close to those numbers once again in 2014. He’s a very underrated though short term option at the position.

On the outside, the Steelers are hoping some combination of Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant can fill the void. Both Wheaton and Bryant are fairly raw prospects which is why the veteran presence of Moore is even more important. While Moore’s on the field production won’t reach the heights it did in New Orleans, he can help push the development of the young guys. I like Wheaton better than Bryant to be the long term option opposite Brown. With a Mike Wallace type skill set, Wheaton is a great compliment to Brown’s role. The problem is he isn’t ready yet, but he’s going to be on the field anyway. I just hope he’s tough enough to take the punches and keep getting up. If he can, he could post low end WR2 numbers in 2015 and beyond.

One AFC division down, three more to go! Next on the list is the division which just might be the worst in the entire NFL. With three of the four teams struggling to find their identity at the quarterback position, it is no wonder the AFC South is near the bottom of the barrel.

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Jacob Feldman
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