Home Division Previews AFC North Breakdown Part II

AFC North Breakdown Part II

Thanks for joining me for the second installment of my AFC North breakdown. If you haven’t checked out part I yet I encourage you to do so here.

Cleveland Browns

Remember when the Browns were one of the favourites to make the Super Bowl? It’s amazing what a strong showing from a rookie Quarterback and a big name skill position trade (Odell Beckham Jr) can do for your public perception. And then the 2019 season happened (insert vomit emoji). Everything about the Browns was disappointing (I’m looking at you Odell Beckham Jr) but I for one, am willing to throw it all out and start again. With all of that talent and a good coaching change, I expect a strong bounce back from the Browns. Kevin Stefanski is a good coach who gets the most out of his players. We might not see the Browns in the Super Bowl, but you can expect a far stronger showing in 2020 than the impotent display in the 2019 season. Also, how did Freddie Kitchens ever get a Head Coaching job?

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Quarterbacks:

Baker Mayfield

Baker, Baker, Baker. Less Twitter and selling your soul to advertising companies and more time working on your very evident, natural talent. I remember when Baker was being drafted as the QB 4. Yes my friends, number 4. That is obviously in line with peoples over the top predictions of the Browns franchise as a whole. He showed so much in 2018. The most TDs thrown by a rookie EVER. And he did it in only 13.5 games (Tyrod Taylor got injured during round 3). You don’t do that if you’re not talented. Two things happened to the Browns last season.

  • They (especially Baker) bought into their own hype
  • They were poorly coached

I foresee a bounce back year for Baker and therefore the Browns. A woefully disappointing season saw them rocket back to earth and they might actually play for success now rather than expecting it to be handed to them on a silver platter. Like I said, less Twitter and endorsements and more football. If that’s the case, Baker has too much raw talent, and too great of a desire to succeed, to fail that miserably again. Baker can sling the rock, he has a plethora of talented weapons and a whole lot to prove. With an ADP of QB 15, you better believe I’m feeling dangerous. I’m in on Baker this year.

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Running Backs:

Nick Chubb

One of the most talented pure runners in the league. If you put much stock in Pro Football Focus’ opinion, he is the best ball carrier in the league with a 92.1 rushing grade since entering the league. The man is a beast. Chubb churns out play after play averaging a delightful 5.1 yards per tote across his career. Chubb’s 1494 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs equalled a very satisfactory return of the Running Back 8. Yet, for those of you who watched any Browns games last season, Chubb left a lot of points on the field.

Chubb had 32 rushing attempts inside the 10 yard line. That is an exceptional number for a Fantasy Running Back. Yet despite all those attempts he only scored 4 TDs within that range. Compare that to Ezekiel Elliot’s 31 inside the 10 attempts for 11 TDs. You can see my frustration. You thought that was bad? How about this one. Chubb had 15 attempts inside the 5 yard line for -14 yards and 2 TDs. That “-“ wasn’t a typo. He rushed for MINUS 14 yards. That efficiency, or more accurately lack of efficiency, cost Chubb a top 3 finish and left a lot of Fantasy owners (including yours truly) incredibly frustrated. These numbers, much like the entire Browns season, I am willing to throw out the window as we head into 2020. Those “10 zone” numbers were historically bad, meaning Chubb can only improve in that area.

It would be remiss of me to not talk about Kareem Hunt when talking about Nick Chubb. Chubb truthers everywhere groaned in exasperation when the Browns placed a second round tender on Kareem Hunt, meaning he would continue to be a thorn in the side of Chubb’s production. These concerns are valid. There is no doubt Hunt is extremely talented, his 2017 and beginning of 2018 production is proof of that. There is no doubt that the Browns want him or they wouldn’t have placed such a high price as a Restricted Free Agent. Despite that, Nick Chubb remains the 1st and 2nd down back as well as the man on the goal line.

Yes Hunt will take away pass catching opportunities. There is no two ways about it. But Chubb is a lock for at least 250 carries at 5 yards a carry. That is first round production. Thanks to Kareem Hunt and Chubb’s goal line issues, Nick Chubb is an absolute steal at his current mid to late second round draft price. I’m placing my fantasy hopes upon Chubb’s extremely broad shoulders.

Kareem Hunt

 Most of what needs to be said about Kareem Hunt I said when talking about Nick Chubb. I will add three quick things however.

  • Hunt offers weekly flex value. His pass catching role and natural skill lend itself to a high floor, particularly in PPR leagues. No he won’t blow up for over 1000 yards rushing. But 50+ receptions and several receiving TDs is well within the realm of possibility.
  • Dynasty owners should note that Kareem Hunt is an Unrestricted Free Agent come seasons end. It is unlikely the Browns will pay Hunt what he is worth on the open market with Chubb as the main man. That means Hunt could easily find himself on a roster with an opportunity to be the main guy.
  • He is the highest value handcuff in the league. Given what I said in point 1, calling Hunt a handcuff is almost unfair. The reality is though, should anything happen to Chubb throughout the year, Hunt would be a league winner.

Dontrell Hilliard

 LOL. I’m not even sure why I put his name down. 

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Wide Receivers:

Odell Beckham Jr

I’m campaigning the Oxford Thesaurus to list Odell Beckham Jr as a synonym for disappointment. He is an elite talent that is rarely matched in the league. His hands (the 2014 catch anyone?), his route running and his physicality are all factors that make him a force to be reckoned with on a football field. Few players possess his ability to take a slant or shallow cross route 80 yards to the house. All of the bows in his quiver should make OBJ a perennial top 5 Wide Receiver. So why isn’t he?

The reoccurring injuries certainly haven’t helped. Then there is the fact that the Giants were a dreadful offence (seriously how does Eli Manning have two Super Bowl rings?). There was so much promise at the start of the 2019 season. OBJ was healthy, Baker Mayfield was seen as a stud, gunslinging Quarterback. All the stars were aligned. But the OBJ Hype train was never able to leave the station.

I watched a lot of the Cleveland Browns last season and there was just no chemistry between Baker and OBJ at all. Baker missed him on wide open throws, OBJ didn’t seem to have the smooth route timing that aided him so well as a Giant. There quite simply wasn’t any chemistry and it showed in OBJ’s fantasy output. OBJ scored less fantasy points for the season than Michael Thomas did in his HOME GAMES ONLY. It’s enough to make those who drafted OBJ high in the 2nd round cry.

Yet, as is the case when discussing the Browns, there is a glimmer of hope. The sad song that is any discussion about OBJ up to this point has meant that people want less to do with him than a person who is positive for Covid 19. OBJ’s ADP is in the toilet. He is currently going as the Wide Receiver 23. 23! All of a sudden my interest is back. Given OBJ’s undeniable talent, Baker Mayfield’s potential and the Browns offence as a whole, I am willing to roll the dice on OBJ one more time. No doubt about it. I’m ready to get hurt again. 

Jarvis Landry

 Having Jarvis Landry on your Fantasy roster is like having spaghetti bolognese for dinner. Nothing flashy, certainly not memorable but it’s never going to let you down. Jarvis Landry is a target MONSTER and has been his entire career. He beats teams like it’s death by 1000 cuts. Catch after catch after catch. Landry is as safe as they come. At this point I could pretty much cut and paste what I wrote about the prospect that is Tyler Boyd.

Landry provides that volume security blanket that makes me very comfortable starting him at flex. Landry has never had less than 112 targets in his 6 year career and that 112 number came in his rookie year. If you take that out his lowest target number was 131 in 2016. Those are good numbers. Landry is a very good insurance policy in the mid rounds of drafts particularly if you have a few “swing for the fences” picks earlier on. 

Rashard Higgins 

Very much the WR3 and probably the 5th pass catching option. Irrelevant for fantasy outside of injury.

Donovan Peoples-Jones 

Not much in terms of draft capital and he is buried in the depth chart in terms of pass catching options. Yet there is something about Peoples-Jones that I just can’t shake. Maybe it’s the fact the he is very good at football. He is going late, if not undrafted, in Dynasty Rookie drafts and is well worth a stash on a Taxi spot. I’m not going to jump into too in depth of an analysis. Just call it a gut feeling. 

Tight Ends: 

Austin Hooper 

Austin Hooper absolutely balled out for the Falcons last year finishing as the TE 6 in only 13 games. Hooper was a machine in the Red Zone which is good news for the Browns given how bad they were in that area last year. A word of warning though. Baker Mayfield is not Matt Ryan and the Falcons pass catching depth is not that of the Browns. Hooper has to worry about the fact that there are many other mouths to feed. Don’t draft Hooper and expect his 2019 Falcons production from him.

David Njoku 

File Njoku under “OJ Howard like disappointment”. With Hooper in town, it’s hard to see Njoku fulfil the potential his athletic profile suggests he should have. He should go undrafted in redraft leagues.  

Pittsburgh Steelers  

Watching the elite Steelers defence last year almost made you forget about the truly torrid Quarterback play. Big Ben Roethlisberger went down in week 2 and the Steelers Fantasy Production as a whole went down with him. It was a year to forget for anyone who spent any capital on Steelers players. With Big Ben coming back there is reason for optimism in Pittsburgh again, though anyone hoping for Steelers numbers similar to the Lev Bell/Antonio Brown days will be sorely disappointed. 

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Quarterbacks: 

Ben Roethlisberger

As mentioned, we didn’t see much of Big Ben last year which obviously really hurt the offence. He received surgery to repair the torn tendon in his elbow 8 days after sustaining the injury. Reports are that his elbow has fully recovered and he is able to throw a football, which is helpful given the position he plays. Dr Alex Weber, Orthopaedic Surgeon has been quoted as saying that there should be no lasting issues following the surgery and there is no greater risk of reinjury than his left elbow (which has never been injured).

That sounds like good news right? There is a strong risk however, that given Big Ben’s age (38) he is at greater risk of sustaining another injury under the rigours of the NFL having missed so much time. Only time will tell whether Big Ben has a few more chapters of his book left to write or if his story doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending.

There is optimism for the future Hall of Famer and his fantasy outlook though. Should he shake of the rust, he has an elite throwing arm and is surrounded by high octane weapons. If Big Ben plays 16 games, you can lock him in for 4000+ yards and 25+ TDs. Given Big Ben is going almost undrafted in single Quarterback leagues he is absolutely worth picking up. Let’s all hold our breath that Big Ben can overcome injuries otherwise, as 2019 showed us, we can rule a line through the Steelers as viable fantasy options.

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Running Backs:

James Connor 

At his current ADP, go draft Connor. Yes he is an injury risk. Yes he broke fantasy hearts last year. But let’s not forget his upside. He was a fantasy revelation in 2018. He came in and made people forget all about Lev Bell’s holdout. That memorable season created a hype beast in fantasy circles that saw him flying off draft boards in the first two rounds. Then in 2019, as was the case for the Steelers in general, it all fell apart. Connor missed significant time from week 9 onwards and failed to hit the heights of his breakout season. This has fantasy owners, including me, completely out on Connor. There comes a point however, when the price of a player is so cheap it forces you to sit up and listen. Connor is going as the RB 18.

If Connor is fit, he is the Steelers number 1 Running Back. History has shown us, behind that offensive line, that position is a very profitable asset for fantasy. Mike Tomlin has never rolled with a Running Back by Committee. If Connor is on the field, I don’t expect that to change. When you draft Connor, you are gambling on his health. Not his talent, not his opportunity, his health. Given you can get Connor as your RB 3, sometime in the 5th or 6th round, you’re not gambling much. I think Connors potential as the lead back for the Steelers is worth risking his health on. When you had to pay a high second round pick that risk blew up in your face. At his current price point, he is a value. Even if he flops again, it won’t tank your season.

It is important to note for Dynasty owners that if Connor does tank this year, it is very hard to imagine a scenario where the Steelers keep him. He is an unrestricted Free Agent come the close of the season and there would be no need for the Steelers Front Office to offer Connor a dime. Running Back is the easiest to replace position on the field. If Connor tanks this year, he won’t get another chance. That has to be built in when weighing up Connor’s value in a Dynasty format. 

Benny Snell Jr

Despite McFarland being drafted, I expect Snell to be the back-up to James Connor. Given the aforementioned question marks about Connor’s health, that is a useful position to be in. There were 5 games in 2019 (Connor was missing for 4 of those) where Snell had over 15 carries. That’s a useful number. During those 5 games Snell averaged over 4.1 yards per carry. That’s another useful number. I am not suggestion Snell will have an earth shattering break out year by any stretch of the imagination. I am purely suggesting that Should Connor go down, Snell will get first crack as the starter. If Connor stays fit however, Snell will be battling McFarland for backup/change of pace duties.

Anthony McFarland

 With not much draft capital (4th round, 124 overall) and two other people ahead of him on the depth chart, McFarland would have to produce something very special to have fantasy relevance. He is a useful Dynasty Rookie pick as there is certainly not a certain future in regards to the Pittsburgh backfield. 

Jaylen Samuels 

All things point to Samuels struggling to make the roster. 

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Wide Receivers: 

JuJu Smith-Schuster 

JuJu was one of those players I got really, really wrong in 2019. I was down with paying late first, early second draft capital. I’m sure you can imagine, that was a bad time. It’s hard to be too mad however when JuJu missed some time with injury. And then, on the weeks he was fit, he was lined up against the best Corner. I know what your thinking. All top receivers have to overcome that. And you are 100% right. But those receivers don’t have Delvin “Duck” Hodges and Mason Rudolph pretending to be NFL Quarterbacks throwing them the ball.

It cannot be said enough how bad the Steelers Quarterback play was last year. I think more blame should be placed upon that fact than JuJu the player. JuJu is an elite talent. You don’t have a season of 111 receptions for 1426 yards and 7 TDs if you’re a bad Wide Receiver. And that is exactly what JuJu did with Big Ben in 2018. With Big Ben back I project a much more positive season for JuJu. Plus JuJu has pumped heaps of money into Sleeper which is my favourite fantasy platform so I’m a fan.

Dionte Johnson 

Oh Boy. The Dionte Johnson hype train is gathering some momentum. I’m not going to lie to you my friends. I have a first-class ticket. Dionte Johnson could well be to JuJu Smith-Schuster what JuJu Smith-Schuster was to Antonio Brown. Johnson has a huge ceiling as the number 2 Wide Out on a Steelers team with a history of production at this position. Johnson’s route running and hands are elite. He looks like he is gliding across the football field rather than running. This attribute lead Johnson to lead the league in 3.6 yards of separation per target (handy when your QB is so, so bad). That is a stat I want my Wide Receivers to be good in.

At the beginning of the offseason Johnson was a sneaky later round pick that could yield huge fantasy returns. Unfortunately as the hype train has gathered momentum, so to has the upward trend of his ADP. His ADP is currently sitting at the 82nd player taken overall which is still very good value, but that has jumped up significantly from 97 overall only one month ago. If that trend continues, drafting Dionte Johnson end of July/early August made be fraught with risk.

James Washington 

The Steelers ran 11 personnel (3WR and 1TE) a whopping 78% of the time in 2018 and 76% of the time in 2019. That means that there are plenty of opportunities for James Washington to see snaps. While Johnson is the Twitter darling of the Steelers offence, James Washington isn’t going anywhere. He is still young, had a 2ndround draft pick spent on him and above all is talented. Washington actually led the Steelers in yards from week 10 onwards with 735 yards in that span. He also only scored 1 fantasy point less than Johnson from week 10 on. My point? James Washington is well worth a look late in drafts as there is a real possibility that James Washington does what everyone is hoping (me included) Dionte Johnson will do. 

Tight Ends: 

Eric Ebron 

A Redzone TD machine. Rumour has it that Big Ben himself asked the Steelers organisation to go aggressively recruit Ebron in Free Agency. I remember Eric Ebron experience from 2018 when he came from no where to score 13 TDs on top of 66 catches and 750 yards. In 2019 he came crashing down to earth. Eric Ebron is a good Tight End, no doubt about it. But given the position is so volatile it is so hard to ascertain value at the position. Eric Ebron will be irrelevant if he is not hyper efficient in the Redzone. Fortunately with his skill set, and having a future Hall of Famer throwing you the ball, it is very likely Ebron will be hyper efficient. Definitely worth a draft pick later on in drafts. Just be prepared for weeks that upset you when he doesn’t score a Touchdown. 

Vance McDonald

With Ebron in town Vance will be virtually irrelevant. I just wanted to bring up the time he absolutely DESTROYED Chris Conte with a brutal stiff arm on a 75 yard catch and run TD against the Buccaneers in 2018. Seriously if you haven’t seen it, look it up on YouTube. One of my favourite NFL highlights ever.

Well that’s it for the AFC North. I hope some of this has helped you somewhat. I am always looking to talk Fantasy Football with people of all experience levels. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter @ashes_fantasy. I hope to bring you more division breakdowns in the near future so stay tuned!

Matt Parkes

The Fantasy Ashes

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