It is training camp time, which means we get to see all 32 teams doing something at least relatively meaningful. It also means there are only a few weeks left until the rosters and depth charts are set for the start of the season. We are going to take a 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.
The AFC North is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL from year to year. Over the last four years, three different teams; the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have all won the division title. With some of the elite players in the league at the skill positions, the division has been a source of elite fantasy production from year to year. As we enter the 2016 season, each team is facing many questions that will determine their success this upcoming season. Below is what I consider the most relevant fantasy question for each team entering the season.
Which running back, wide receiver, and tight end will emerge to lead the team in fantasy points?
I cannot remember a year where there was so much uncertainty as who will be the top performer at all three skill positions for one team. The Ravens enter this season with legitimate questions at the running back, wide receiver and tight end position.
[am4show have=’g1;’ guest_error=’sub_message’ user_error=’sub_message’ ]
The running back depth chart is crowded, with veteran Justin Forsett, second year player Buck Allen, rookie Kenneth Dixon, as well as Lorenzo Taliaferro and Terrance West. Forsett signed there to be the lead back last off-season, and was on his way to a productive first season for the Ravens before an injury ended his season. He returns this year, but will turn 31 in October and has only had one full season of top fantasy production. Allen, a fourth round pick last season, finished strong last year, especially in PPR leagues but lost a lot of his value when they invested another fourth round pick on Kenneth Dixon this year. Dixon was one of the more complete backs in the draft and I believe is an overall better talent than Allen. West has looked good in the early part of camp, but it is hard to see how he gets enough touches to be relevant.
I think Forsett has the clear leg up on everyone to receive the most touches, but believe Allen will be used as well, especially near the goal line and in some receiving situations. By the end of the year though, I do believe Dixon will start cutting into Allen’s workload, but overall it will still be Forsett, if healthy who will lead the team in fantasy points.
The wide receiver and tight end positions are even more confusing to make sense of than running back. At the receiver position, Kamar Aiken, Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace are the names of importance. Smith is coming back from a serious injury and is 37 years old. Perriman, a first round selection last year, has not played a down in the NFL, after missing his rookie year with an injury, and is once again questionable to start the season with another injury. Wallace, a free agent signing from Minnesota, seems to be a situational vertical threat on the downside of his career.Aiken is the most interesting of the group because after filling in for all the injured receivers last year, he caught 75 passes for 944 yards and five touchdowns.
While Smith coming back from injury and not retiring is the feel good story at the position and Joe Flacco will definitely connect on a handful of deep touchdowns to Wallace, I believe it will be Aiken that will lead the team in receptions and yards and be the top fantasy producer at the position. I think Aiken is being severely undervalued right now in the fantasy community and will look to roster him cheaply wherever I can.
At tight end, the depth chart is four deep with free agent signing Ben Watson, second year player Maxx Williams, Crockett Gilmore, and former fantasy TE1 Dennis Pitta. Pitta is trying to come back from a serious hip injury that has kept him out since early in the 2014 NFL season. Williams, really struggled in his rookie season and now faces an uphill battle with all the other options at the position. Gilmore started to emerge in his second season last year, catching 33 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns. Watson put up elite TE1 stats for the New Orleans Saints at the age of 34 last season, catching 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns. I think Watson will lead the position in fantasy points but I do not expect him to even come close to his numbers from last year. I think they will utilize all of their options, and Watson will see his overall numbers about cut in half.
Will one of the two running backs emerge from the committee to become a consistent fantasy producer?
All off-season the talk has been that the Cleveland backfield this upcoming season will be a true committee, with Isaiah Crowell handling many of the early down carries and Duke Johnson being the change of pace back and handling all of the third down work. While that may be still be the plan, I think there is a strong likelihood that one of the two emerges and becomes a more fantasy relevant player of the two.
Crowell was an undrafted free agent in 2014 out of Alabama State, but that was more because of off the field concerns than his on field talent. He was a former big time recruit to Georgia, who had an outstanding freshman season for the Bulldogs before transferring. His first two seasons for the Browns have been solid, but nothing spectacular. He ran for 607 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, then this past season he rushed for 706 yards and four touchdowns. He offers little in the pass game and is more of a between-the-tackles runner.
Johnson, a rookie last season out of Miami offers much more upside, versatility and big play ability. In his rookie year he rushed for 379 yards but really had an effect on the pass game as he caught 61 passes for 534 yards. Hue Jackson, new head coach of the Browns has regularly said, he thinks Johnson can be a three down player in this league, and I agree. Prior to him being drafted, he reminded me of former Philadelphia Eagles running back, Brian Westbrook. I thought he could excel in both running the ball and receiving. Another player he currently reminds me of is Giovani Bernard, who Jackson coached and used often during his tenure with the Bengals.
While I think Crowell will still be involved in the run game, I think Johnson will end up splitting pretty evenly the early down carries, and handle all of the receiving and third down work. Johnson offers the potential to lead the league in receptions from the running back position. With all of that receiving work and the carries he will handle, I believe Johnson offers RB2 potential in PPR leagues and will easily be the most valuable running back to own from the Browns this upcoming season.
Who will develop into the number two fantasy wide receiver replacing the production of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones?
When Jones and Sanu left via free agency this past March, the Bengals lost 98 receptions and 1200 yards of receiving production. In addition to those losses, star tight Tyler Eifert may not be ready to start the season due to an off-season injury. The Bengals need a receiver or two to emerge from the depth chart to give AJ Green a running mate, and quarterback Andy Dalton another reliable target. The two main options are veteran receiver Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd.
Lafell signed on with the Bengals after two seasons with the New England Patriots. He really had a productive year in 2014 catching 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. This past season he struggled and looked more like the inconsistent player from his years in Carolina, only catching 37 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns. While he is the favorite to the start the season opposite Green, I do not think he will hold on to that job long. I think it will be the rookie Boyd, who ends up being the second most productive fantasy receiver on the roster.
Boyd was selected out of Pittsburgh in the second round this past draft, pick number 55 overall. Once considered a first round talent, Boyd fell to the second round due to questions about his speed and athleticism. I think pre-draft concerns about his athletic abilities were overblown and the Bengals got a player who is going to be a productive number two wide receiver for a long time. I think Boyd is a savvy route runner, who knows how to get open and has great hands. I never saw Boyd as a vertical threat, so was less concerned than others about his athletic testing and timed speed. He will be a possession type receiver in the NFL, offering positional versatility to line up outside or in the slot. I think he is a perfect complement to Green and will eventually down the line offer WR3 fantasy value.
Can Sammie Coates develop into their number two wide receiver and provide fantasy value this upcoming season?
With Martavis Bryant suspended for the upcoming season, the opportunity is now there for another member of the Steelers receiving corps to take advantage and become an integral part of the pass offense. The possible replacements in filling in for the loss of Bryant, is a larger role for Markus Wheaton or the emergence of second year player, Sammie Coates.
Wheaton has been solid the in last two years, catching 53 passes for 644 yards in 2014, and last season 44 receptions for 749 yards and five touchdowns. Wheaton should be used as a number three receiver in the Steelers offense as he cannot replicate and do many of the things that Bryant can. Bryant, when playing stretches the field as a vertical threat, is dangerous after the catch and offers tremendous big play ability. The one player on the roster that can offer all those traits and replace Bryant is Coates.
The Steelers selected Coates out of Auburn in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, with the 87t overall selection. Coates offers a combination of size and speed. At 6’1” and 212 pounds he ran the 40 yard dash in 4.43 seconds. Coming of college, I thought Coates was a late first or early second round talent that got pushed down to the third round due to concerns about his route running and hands. I think he is more advanced in route running than people give him credit for and the drops will not be as much of an issue as some think. He can use his physicality, size and speed to make big plays in the open field. In addition, he can provide the same tactical value as Bryant, a vertical threat that defenses have to be paying close attention to on every play.
With all of the attention that defenses must pay to star wide receiver Antonio Brown, I think Coates can provide big play potential and make the Steelers offense almost as dangerous as if Bryant was healthy. While I think he will be inconsistent from week to week, I do believe that Coates will develop into the clear number two option for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Similar to his on the field play, his fantasy stats will vary weekly but do believe he can provide WR4 value with the upside for some WR1 or WR2 weekly scores.